Nov 25

“Sane New World”: Ruby Wax Says We Can Change Our Brains

Wax says that human beings are simply not equipped to deal with the crushing demands of 21st-century living, with its deluded update on Descartes: “I’m busy therefore I am.” Allison Pearson, The Telegraph, regarding Sane New World

Comedian Ruby Wax has been speaking out about her own mental health issues for years. (See my previous post about her.)

In her new book Sane New World Wax now shares what she’s learned about mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, an area in which she’s gotten her Master’s degree. Her publisher: “…(S)he explains how our busy, chattering, self-critical thoughts drive us to anxiety and stress. If we are to break the cycle, we need to understand how our brains work, rewire our thinking and find calm in a frenetic world.”

Although she dedicates the book “to my mind, which at one point left town,” she directs it to both the “mad-mad” (those who identify with having mental illness) and the “normal-mad” (everyone else).

Wax opens the book with information about her episodes of depression. She believes, she tells Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini, FT.com, that depression is biological, not “situation-appropriate.” Furthermore, whether about her own life or that of others, “’Failure or success has nothing to do with the disease, nothing,’ she insists. ‘Think of it as every other disease. Depression is like cancer, shingles or diabetes, there is no link.’”

It’s her explanation of the role of the brain in our emotional lives that’s been the better reviewed section of Sane New World. Bella BathurstThe Guardian, calls it “the clearest I’ve seen” on this topic.

When in the midst of one’s illness, medication is the way to go, says Wax. However, when not in the midst of it, the mindfulness techniques she advocates can be preventive and/or helpful.

By using mindfulness techniques, we can observe emotions, decide whether they’re rational, and make appropriate changes.

Oct 15

Ruby Wax: A Comedian Now Waxing Mindful On Mental Illness

“People who say … they’re perfectly fine [are] more insane than the rest of us.” Ruby Wax

The above quote is taken from “What’s So Funny About Mental Illness?,” a TED Talk by Ruby Wax, an American comedian who started a successful career in the U.K. in the 1980’s.

In more recent years her career stalled a bit, however, apparently related to episodes of depression.

But Wax has let neither her condition nor the lack of available work keep her down, so to speak. She and friend Judith Owen, a singer/songwriter who’s also battled depression, created their own show, one they inaugurated at various mental health facilities. Along the way, Wax unexpectedly became a celebrity “poster child” for depression. From the TED blog:

Comic Relief put my face on a poster. I was in the Tube, and there was a poster of my face with the word DEPRESSED stamped across it. When I saw it, I almost lost my organs out of my nose. I tried to stand in front of the first poster and block the view. And then, down the escalator, there was another poster, and another. You know how they do that? And by the time I got down to the platform I thought, OK, well, I’ll write a show and pretend this was my publicity. I’ve always said to myself, if you’ve got a disability, use it.

So they branched out even further. Their newly beefed-up show Losing It expanded to other venues, including an extended run last year at a theater in London’s West End. The Guardian describes it:

The first half of the show was pretty much what you might have expected: a funny (mental illness is a much-underused comedy resource) and informative tour of depression, with a little Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) thrown in for good measure. The second half, a question-and-answer session with the audience, was anything but.

‘We wanted to give people a chance to share their experiences and ask questions,’ says Wax, ‘but we only imagined one or two people at most speaking out before it petered out with everyone making for the exit. Rather than finding it hard to get people to talk, our real problem was getting them to shut up.’

On a more personal level, Wax has been working on her Master’s in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Mindfulness is what she uses to decrease her own ruminating—though as she says (in the TED post):

…not in a guru Buddha let’s-eat-a-cauliflower way. I throw my attention to a physical sensation, to a sound, focus on my feet on the ground, as opposed to this … endless mental loop tape … because the mind can’t be in two modes at once. It can’t think and also sense something at the same time. It’s a trick you’re playing on yourself, on your thinking. If I throw focus from my rumination to one of my senses, it brings the cortisol down. Other people might say, ‘I’m going to focus my attention on my cat or put Vivaldi on.’ I don’t care how you learn to flip your dial when you need to.

…We need better words. ‘Mindfulness’ sounds like something Martha Stewart says: ‘Be mindful when you serve the chicken at a dinner party.’

…And the bitch of it is, you have to do it every day. Feel your breathing, feel your feet on the ground. It’s attention on attention. When you do it regularly, your neurons are rewiring…

Notably, Ruby Wax says she actually got into mindfulness because she’d become fed up with shrinks who weren’t so helpful.

The TED talk: “What’s So Funny About Mental Illness?”