Ruby Wax: on the power of laughter, mindfulness, and the scourge of stress

Written by
Mary Appleton

18 May 2018

18 May 2018 • by Mary Appleton

Whatever your opinion of writer and performer Ruby Wax, watching her 2005 interview with Donald Trump is likely to evoke empathy from the harshest of critics. The uncomfortable exchange sees Wax accompany the controversial Republican on his private jet as part of her BBC TV series Ruby’s American Pie. The pair do not gel.

Despite Trump’s dismissive responses to her questioning (at one point he refuses to continue the interview), Wax persists, following him to his Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City where he demands she waits at the door.

“It’s like a comedy routine,” Trump tells Wax. “You are looking for laughs and want to make me look as bad as possible. You are so obnoxious.”

Reflecting on the experience 11 years on, Wax recognises her behaviour was manic (“my eyes were like a wild animal’s”) and admits that it was, in part, her own fear of the situation which prompted Trump’s reactions.

“I let it show that I loathed him and was judging him the whole time,” she says. “He smelled what I was doing pretty quickly. I didn’t know what I was doing. If I’d just been curious about him as a phenomenon, I could have let him hang himself.”

Since then, Wax’s career has taken a different path. No longer defined by brash stand-up comedy and TV interviews with celebrities (Wax also interviewed Madonna, Imelda Marcos and Liza Minnelli – all with similar results), she has turned attention to her lifelong fascination with psychology and how the brain works, devoting her time to talking about mental health, mindfulness and their impact on everyday living.


The science behind depression

Wax’s own battles with depression have been well-documented. It was shortly after the Trump interview that she was first admitted to private rehabilitation hospital, The Priory. Her stays contributed to much of her subsequent material.

In 2012, she performed her first show, ‘Losing It’, charting her own experiences of depression, for a number of institutions and charities. The following year, Wax gained a Master’s degree in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy from the University of Oxford, to increase her understanding of the brain and the science behind her condition.

“I’d always found psychology interesting, but how it manifests in the biology of your brain is even more fascinating,” she says. This fascination prompted her to write her book and theatre show, Sane New World: Taming the Mind, which she describes as “an accessible, fascinating insight into human behaviour and a manual for understanding how the brain works”. Through her best-selling one-woman show, Wax used her understanding of neuroscience to explore the pressures modern living impose on our brains, and how mindfulness can help reprogramme the way we think and feel.

“I always wanted to do more stuff about how we behave but I didn’t know how to present it,” she says. “When I studied neuroscience, my husband knew I would combine it with comedy.”

For Wax, the greatest method of entry into people’s minds is making them laugh, but she’s clear about the significance of the underlying message she is trying to convey. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, using the technique inspired by Buddhist tradition, yields a 60% chance of preventing relapse among those who have had three or more episodes of depression. Presenting it to the public rather than “just practising it in a room with 30 people” is what interests Wax, and she takes the responsibility seriously.

“I didn’t want to be so funny that people didn’t get the message, but you don’t want to bore people either,” she tells me.


Shift towards acceptance of mental health

Shows such as Sane New World and Frazzled have helped make mindfulness and awareness of mental health more accessible inrecent years, Wax believes.

“People now say they have bipolar like it’s a badge of honour,” she quips. “But [Frazzled] is not just for the one in four [in the UK who have mental health issues], it’s for everyone – I’m not just talking about mental illness. We all have stress – whether it’s about mortgages, debt, keeping your job – and it influences how you behave.”

Indeed, stress in the workplace is prolific, with two-fifths of organisations reporting an increase in stress-related absences over the past year, rising to half in the public sector, according to the CIPD’s 2015 absence management report. Some 41% of organisations also noted an increase in reported mental health problems (such as anxiety and depression) among employees.

But the recent shift in ‘acceptance’ of stress and mental health issues in wider society is mirrored in the corporate world, Wax observes. 

"A lot of companies are doing anti-stigma campaigns now,” she says. “Perhaps they realise that some of their most savvy people have more stress as they’re the most ambitious. Someone lazy won’t burn out.”

The CIPD report found 56% of organisations are taking steps to identify and reduce stress in the workplace. Half invest in training for line managers to identify and manage stress in their teams, and 30% provide training to help managers support staff with mental health problems.

As someone with first-hand experience of depression, Wax believes that the opportunity to talk about how stress affects you, is half the relief. “If you’re isolated, it ends up being shame on top of secrecy which creates more stress,” she explains.

So what can organisations do to support stressed employees? “Someone needs to be brave enough to have meetings about this stuff,” suggests Wax. “You don’t have to call it a meeting about mental issues… say it’s wine tasting!”


Understanding mindfulness

Learning how to “cool your engines and reboot” is key to mindfulness and can help relationships at work, advises Wax. Once you can practise it, she argues you can be more energetic and deliver better performance, so it’s in companies’ interests to support these behaviours.

“Mindfulness is understanding what mode you’re in, then making choices either to stay in that mode or pull back,” she explains.

While she admits it can be tricky at first, Wax believes anything can be changed once you have awareness, and you can use techniques to alter your behaviour. “If something’s not working, we go back to our default emotions,” she continues. “I know my fear translates into anger, so if I sense this fear, I can begin to ‘adjust my dials’ and that’s mindfulness.

“For example, I thought I was doing a good job [with the TV interviews], but when I looked back at them in the edit suite, I could see my fear that they weren’t going to work showing in my face, so it terrorised [the interviewees]. I didn’t notice at the time, because when you’re stressed, you just go  blank. You get a kind of red mist."

Identify your trigger points

Once you can identify your trigger points you can start to alter them. “I would say in my head: ‘shut up, they are talking, listen to them,’…it eventually becomes habitual and you pick up their rhythm, instead of imposing your own.

“Experience helps you pinpoint when you’re going into fearful mode,” continues Wax. “Concentrate on who you’re in the room with – scan yourself before you go into a stressful situation. If you yell at yourself, you’ll be more uptight. With awareness, you can change your approach.

“There’s such a difference between talking at people and talking with them,” she declares. “People are flattered when you throw away your notes, see who’s sitting in front of you and start being curious about them.” If you tune into what the other person is talking about, your inner voices will start to lower. “You’ll start to feel the communication rather than an itchiness to get the conversation over with. It ends up like a game of tennis rather than a monologue.”

Learn to drive your mind

Mindfulness has also enabled Wax to grapple with the stage fright which plagued her early in her career. “I wasn’t a good actress because I was always fearful,” she says. “But when you find your terrain, and you know enough about it, you lose the fear.”

So how does she feel when she goes on stage today? “I get my heart beat down before I go on, so I can’t get thrown. During one show, a burglar alarm went off. Years ago I would have fainted, but instead I just sat and waited for it to stop.”

These days, teaching while being funny is Wax’s favourite activity, and her desire to help others is unwavering. Earlier this year, she was awarded an OBE for services to mental health, which she aptly chose to accept at The Priory. Next on her agenda is opening public walk-in centres across the UK – which she likens to the Alcoholics Anonymous model – to provide a place for “frazzled” people to meet, share experiences and learn from one another.

She explains: “Everyone knows a person at home or work who has been affected by stress. We arashamed to have vulnerabilities. But if we want to stop the stigma, there’s strength in numbers."

While Wax confesses she’s “a little sad” she’s no longer gripped by the persona she worked so hard to create, losing her fear and getting to know her own trigger points has helped her manage her condition.

She still practises mindfulness, and believes that, in a world where, by the year 2020, burnout and depression will be the second leading cause of death and disability, it’s time for us all to take steps towards a more mindful existence. The key is practice.

“Nothing is automatic – you don’t go into the gym buff,” she laughs. “But these exercises are the most important of all. It’s about learning how to drive your mind rather than letting it drive you.”