Wax­ing lyri­cal on mind­ful­ness

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - MIND MATTERS - WITH PATRICIA CASEY

MED­I­CAL topics are fre­quently fea­tured at the Ed­in­burgh Fringe Fes­ti­val, which fin­ishes to­day. They usu­ally “take the Mickey” out of doc­tors mis­com­mu­ni­cat­ing and mak­ing clin­i­cal er­rors. Yet psy­chi­a­try does not of­ten fig­ure in these per­for­mances. This year was slightly dif­fer­ent, in that the Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try at Ed­in­burgh Univer­sity, Stephen Lawrie, gave a talk on psy­cho­log­i­cal and phar­ma­co­log­i­cal ther­apy at one of the pop­u­lar venues. This was not com­edy.

How­ever, the Amer­i­can-born come­di­enne Ruby Wax did per­form a show in the com­edy list­ings at one of the largest venues there.

Wax did a week-long show at the Fringe, the world’s largest com­edy and arts fes­ti­val, and also gave a talk at the In­ter­na­tional Book Fes­ti­val on her lat­est book, How to be Hu­man: The Man­ual. She has be­come a much sought-af­ter speaker and men­tal health ad­vo­cate since she de­vel­oped de­pres­sion and even­tu­ally had to be treated as in in-pa­tient in the Pri­ory Clinic in Lon­don a num­ber of years ago. An ear­lier book, A Mind­ful­ness Guide for the Fraz­zled, was writ­ten just af­ter she ob­tained a

Masters De­gree in Mind­ful­ness Based Cog­ni­tive Ther­apy (MBCT), at Ox­ford Univer­sity. Her new book deals with the need for mind­ful­ness, its his­tory and the phys­i­ol­ogy be­hind the tech­nique. It presents tech­niques for ba­sic mind­ful­ness ex­er­cises also.

Her show is rea­son­ably funny and con­sists largely of her in­ter­view­ing her­self and dis­cussing var­i­ous topics re­lat­ing to mind­ful­ness. The ques­tions she poses to her­self in­clude: what is stress and fraz­zle, are we all more stressed than ever, what is the big­gest prob­lem peo­ple face and how can it be solved, what if you don’t have time to prac­tice the mind­ful­ness ex­er­cise and so forth.

She em­pha­sises that, for her, “fraz­zled” is not the same as stress, which she rightly sees as ben­e­fi­cial to hu­mans in deal­ing with the day-to-day chal­lenges that we all face. These need a de­gree of anx­i­ety for us to over­come them. The im­por­tance of adap­tive stress is well recog­nised in psy­chi­a­try and psy­chol­ogy.

But, ac­cord­ing to Wax, be­ing fraz­zled is an emo­tional state that is ex­ces­sive and is bound up with ex­ces­sive wor­ries of our own mak­ing.

In other words, we beat our­selves up for triv­ial rea­sons and over­think small things. The word “fraz­zled” is not used in clin­i­cal prac­tice, but to a reader, or an au­di­ence it am­ply con­veys the ex­ces­sive na­ture of the emo­tion. She has be­come a strong sup­porter of MBCT for such states and has the im­pri­matur of Pro­fes­sor Mark Wil­liams, a Bri­tish psy­chi­a­trist in Ox­ford whose im­print on mind­ful­ness is undis­puted.

The an­swers to the ques­tions she asked her­self were not very tightly con­structed and while they were fre­quently en­ter­tain­ing, I felt that this style did not re­ally con­vey what mind­ful­ness is about.

She in­volved the au­di­ence in some mind­ful­ness ex­er­cises, but in­evitably these were very brief. Nei­ther did she over­step by sug­gest­ing that mind­ful­ness was a cure-all. Yet, only once did she briefly men­tion her own de­pres­sion, which could have pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity to point to the need for other treat­ments for de­pres­sion rather than sim­ply pro­mot­ing a pop­u­lar in­ter­ven­tion.

This is a pity, be­cause there is a danger that her ad­vo­cacy of mind­ful­ness, cou­pled with her clear wish to raise aware­ness about men­tal ill­ness, will be taken as an en­dorse­ment of that tech­nique as the only so­lu­tion.

On a pos­i­tive note, she un­der­stands the brain bi­ol­ogy un­der­pin­ning how mind­ful­ness works and she ex­plains this in one of the most clearly ac­ces­si­ble pieces that I’ve seen writ­ten A Mind­ful­ness Guide for the public in for the Fraz­zled.

Mind­ful­ness is cur­rently “kingpin” of ther­a­pies in the public con­scious­ness. There are dozens of books avail­able on the topic and for the public, try­ing to choose from this vast ar­ray can be daunt­ing. Oc­ca­sion­ally en­thu­si­as­tic writ­ers give a false, and overly pos­i­tive, im­pres­sion of the ter­ri­tory suited to mind­ful­ness.

To her credit, Wax tries to clearly dis­tin­guish be­tween nor­mal and patho­log­i­cal anx­i­ety. And she has the ad­van­tage of first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of the men­tal health ser­vices, hav­ing been hos­pi­talised in the past.

Her hon­est ap­proach means that her books are worth seek­ing out for any­one who wants to un­der­e­stand mind­ful­ness bet­ter.

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