The power of habit

“1 in 5 people have dandruff. 1 in 4 people have mental health problems. I’ve had both.” Ruby Wax


When I get the opportunity to meet someone who is a keen advocate of Mindfulness and who is also a personality, I jump at the chance. Last week, Ruby Wax gave a talk at an Action for Happiness event in London. She was promoting her new book “A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled.”

Ruby, in case you are not aware, has suffered from depression all of her life. As she shared during the evening, her quest has been to find ways to minimise the impact of depression and also to lengthen the interval between the depressive episodes. As the quote at the start of this article describes, 1 in 4 people have mental health problems and the number of people with issues continues to rise.

Approximately seven years ago, Ruby came across Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT. The programme was created and is run by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, by Doctor Mark Williams (the person who wrote the book, Finding peace in a frantic world, which introduced me to Mindfulness). Ruby graduated with a Masters degree in MBCT and has been practising Mindfulness every day ever since.

Ruby went on to talk about how “frazzled” we are. Thousands of years ago, we were more present, living in the here and now. Our focus then was hunting, gathering food and looking after our loved ones. Our current world is made up of so much more and is predominated by our thoughts and perceptions of the past, the present and also the future. We ruminate and continually go back over thongs, creating a negative spiral that can lead to anxiety, fear, worry and ultimately depression.

Depression is often kept going, from one moment to the next, by streams of negative thoughts going through the mind (such as “My life is a mess,” “What’s wrong with me?” “I don’t think I can go on”).

Redirecting attention away from these ruminative thought streams by becoming really aware of what we’re doing while we’re doing it can “starve” the thought streams of the attention they need to keep going. That way, we “pull the plug” on what is keeping us depressed, and our mood can begin to improve. That is what Mindfulness does. And that is how Ruby uses it every day.

One of the points that Ruby raised during the evening that made a real impression on me was:-

“If you repeat your thoughts, they become an action. If you repeat an action, it becomes a habit. A repeated habit creates a fixed persona. A fixed persona becomes your destiny.”

You have to ask yourself if we can create a physical habit – be it smoking, drinking, or driving for example – how long does it take to create a mental habit?

The time and the effort are exactly the same.

Mindfulness can help break the negative mind habit.

Both the MBCT Mindfulness programme Ruby was talking about, or the MBSR Mindfulness programme that I followed, is approximately eight weeks in duration. 56 days in total and you can start to say you have developed a mindful habit. In fact, modern scientific research seems to indicate that it takes about 66 days for a habit to stick. [Check out the following link for the scientific stuff –].

In mindfulness, we pay attention to our experience rather than being lost in it. This means that over time we develop a different relationship to difficult experiences. In particular, we can see negative and / or depressive thoughts for what they really are – just patterns in the mind, arising and passing away, rather than “the truth” about what kind of person I am, or how the future will be. In that way, we weaken the power of these thoughts to drag our mood down further and keep us trapped in the rumination and depressive cycle.

And, of course, getting into the habit of knowing what we’re doing as we’re doing it allows us to know more clearly what we are thinking and feeling in any moment. In that way, we put ourselves in a better position to deal promptly and effectively with issues that may arise.

Ruby’s honesty and humour made a real impression. And the results for her have been amazing. She has gone from a previous depressive episode lasting 3 months, to the last one only lasting 3 weeks. In addition, she was able to prepare better when she realised the depressive episode was approaching and the dive into the depressive episode was less deep.

I rarely recommend books but I would recommend hers.

I leave you with the following quote:

“I’ll say it again – mental illness is a physical illness. You wouldn’t consider going up to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s to yell, “Come on, get with it, you remember where you left your keys?” Let us shout it from the rooftops until everyone gets the message; depression has nothing to do with having a bad day or being sad, it’s a killer if not taken seriously.”

Ruby Wax

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