By Adam Sechrist
Ruby Wax is an American abroad. She’s a comedian and writer who found fame not in her native United States but in the United Kingdom. She’s known for her standup comedy and BBC shows especially “Ruby Wax Meets,” where she’s interviewed the likes of O.J. Simpson and Madonna. And she’s also well known for suffering from depression.
After unintentionally being “outed” thanks to a British ad campaign that used her face on a poster about mental illness, Wax said she had to come clean about her depression, which had earlier gotten to a point where she was institutionalized.
To help her cope with her condition, she started attending psychotherapy classes at Oxford University. She eventually earned a master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and wrote a book titled “Sane New World: Taming the Mind.”
Wax has used her education and role as a public figure to increase awareness of mental illness in the United Kingdom. She delivered presentations to the British Parliament that have led to changes in some laws that discriminate against those with mental illness.
In her book, which is a bestseller in the U.K., Wax points out five things we may not know about what she calls our normal-crazy mind:
The bad news: We are drawn to bad news
The brain detects negative information faster than it does positive. Part of our brain still thinks it’s 400 million years ago, so we’re on the constant lookout for predators. Even in a resting state, your brain is tracking the horizon. In the 21st century, it’s not enough to run from what threatens us. We’re helpless in the face of economic bedlam, out-of-control climate, and new wars breaking out every news cycle. No wonder we’re stressed.
The good news: Attention is the road to freedom
When you train your attention, you unwire old neural patterns and create new ones. Notice when you feel stress coming on; notice how your breathing and posture change. Don’t suppress your thoughts or feelings, or run away from them. Each time we experience our feelings, without judging ourselves or trying to fix things, we’re building a muscle — and gaining new perspective.
Negativity is all in your head (mostly)
Most of us fall into bad thinking habits. Overgeneralizing, all-or-nothing scenarios, jumping to conclusions, and personalization are just a few examples of distorted thought patterns — each of which we can “unlearn” with practice. Every time I notice an audience member glance away when I’m onstage, I’m absolutely certain I will flop for the rest of my life, leading to moods so dark they’ll be responsible for causing earthquakes halfway across the planet. Just a hypothetical example.
Small steps make big changes
Every tiny change you make opens up a small chink in the wall you’ve built around yourself; keep on changing and you’ll eventually break free. The chair you’re used to sitting in — change it. The route you take every day — change it. The people you surround yourself with — mix it up a bit. Sleep on the other side of the bed. Change your toothpaste/perfume/lipstick/soup. (Maybe think twice before you change your husband/wife. Maybe.)
Give your demons a name
Whenever I used to get a sniff of rejection, I would slide straight back to the feelings I had as a child: lonely, ignored, and a little freakish. Now whenever I feel myself sliding into this black hole of despair, I say, “OK, I’m in Mitzi mode.” I picture Mitzi, with her ratty hair, dirty face, and scrawny limbs, and I suddenly feel compassion for her (me). And nothing — nothing — calms the mind like compassion for yourself.
Excerpts adapted from “Sane New World,” by Ruby Wax by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, copyright © 2013 by Ruby Wax.