Fear of failure prompts motormouth Wax to go mindful
American comedian says 24-hour nature of modern living and the constant pressure to strive is leaving many of us burnt out
Ruby Wax in Dublin: She describes mindfulness as ‘a trick’. ‘If you send your attention inside your body to feelings like your bum on the seat, nothing spiritual, your brain can’t be anxious at the same time. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Ruby Wax thinks we’re not equipped for the 21st century. The American comedian and writer turned mental health campaigner says the 24-hour nature of modern living and the constant pressure to strive is leaving many of us burnt out and depressed.
“We don’t have a braking system,” she says of our increasing busyness. “Some people have a really hard time pulling the brakes and not doing the next email. It’s not everybody, but it’s everybody I know.”
Wax is probably best known on this side of the water for her 1996 BBC documentary series Ruby Wax Meets in which she ferociously lampooned her subjects.
Her high-risk interview style saw her cajole her way into Imelda Marcos’ shoe closet and Madonna’s crotch-less knickers, which Wax wore on her head while interviewing the star. But behind the irrepressible motor-mouth shtick, Wax was sometimes suffering.
“I’ve personally gone on a rollercoaster of depression for most of my adult life,” she says. In her new book, Sane New World: Taming the Mind, she describes her own mental health battles and thoughts of suicide in raw but humorous detail, but also how mindfulness is now helping her, and can help others, to navigate life.
“My career ended with a bang in that I ended up in an asylum,” she says. But after her exit, “down the escalator of show business”, a meeting with Oxford professor of clinical psychology, mindfulness guru Mark Williams found her wanting to explore more about how the mind works and what she could do to retrain hers.
“If your car kept breaking down, wouldn’t you want to know why? You’d ask somebody to take a look at the engine and tell you,” she says. “I said to him, I want to study some more of this but he said unfortunately, you have to go to Oxford.”
Entry to Oxford
Just as Wax’s brash charm got her inside the bathrooms and closets of celebrities, so too, it seems, it got her into Oxford where the self-confessed D-grade science student who also has dyslexia won a spot to study a Master’s in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy alongside scientists and medics.
“So I got all my good grades together and I give really good interviews so I got in there,” she says with obvious pride. Instead of a 10,000-word essay, the university let her do her dissertation as a show. “I did a play at Oxford which they filmed and that’s how I passed. Wasn’t that nice of them? They’d never had it before.”
The resulting book is part “neuroscience for dummies” – complete with cartoon diagrams depicting how the brain works – part personal experience and part mental health manual.
Hormones, neurons, hemispheres and regions, Wax describes what physically happens in the brain and how cognitive-based therapy and mindfulness can work to keep it on an even keel.
“If you become really aware of what your habit is, like you are always the aggressor or always the victim or you always choose men who are going to leave you, you don’t have to think this is going to happen again,” she explains. “By just noticing, eventually some of those neurons – because your habits are an embedded path – will unhook and form new habits.”
She describes mindfulness as “a trick’. “If you send your attention inside your body to feelings like your bum on the seat, nothing spiritual, your brain can’t be anxious at the same time.”
The theory is that as soon as attention is switched to a sense, our “fight or flight” emergency signals calm down. So if we feel stress, fear or anxiety and we send our attention to one of our senses, our heart slows down, adrenaline and cortisol gets lower, our oxygen increases and our mind gets clear.
“You can practise at a bus stop or wherever. Start by being aware of your feet on the ground or your breathing; then automatically the anxiety starts to subside. They can see that in brain scans.”
Lack of curiosity
Wax is amazed that we all aren’t more curious about how the mind functions. “Why aren’t people interested in their brain? I don’t understand why in 2013 they are still asking me what star sign I am, or there’s a book on your inner angel – how can that happen? How is it possible? It’s unbelievable to me.”
She is adamant that her book is not just for the depressed. “I am one of the one in four who have mentally unravelled; this book is for the four in four.
“Everybody has critical voices, there is nobody with voices that say ‘what a wonderful thing you are doing to humanity,’ or ‘you are so attractive’. Nobody has that so I wanted to know why.”
With what she calls an “endless tape” in our heads saying, “Don’t do that . . . why didn’t you . . . you should have . . .” she says we “whip ourselves to keep moving like an old horse, until we fall down exhausted”.
The book pokes fun at our obsession with making heroes of the busy too. “We hold those who are on the tightest schedules in reverence, the busier you are, the higher your status as a human being. We have sped ourselves up to such a frenzy of things to do that we make ourselves ill, just to avoid having to look inside and see that we might not have any point at all.” Wax says life should be about celebrating the wisest, not the busiest or richest.
So has the book transformed how she feels about herself?
“Well no, I still know I can hear, ‘you are going to be a failure, this book is going to go down the tubes’. I can still hear it, but I may at some points in the day now not buy into it.”
Sane New World: Taming the Mind is published by Hodder & Stoughton