Decoding anxiety: The mental health pioneer who was ahead of her time

Mental health pioneer Dr Claire Weekes developed a successful technique for treating panic attacks, but was largely ignored by the establishment, says Marjorie Brennan.

Decoding anxiety: The mental health pioneer who was ahead of her time

Mental health pioneer Dr Claire Weekes developed a successful technique for treating panic attacks, but was largely ignored by the establishment, says Marjorie Brennan.

We live in worrying times, amid what appears to be an epidemic of anxiety. As mental health awareness increases, so too does the advice on how to tackle anxiety, whether on social media, from wellness ‘influencers’ or the ever-burgeoning self-help section in bookshops.

But before the self-help genre even existed, there was one woman who was hailed for her success in helping people take control of their own anxiety, and with methods that are common currency today.

Claire Weekes was an Australian doctor who became famous with her bestselling books on ‘nervous illness’ in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, Australian journalist Judith Hoare’s book, Cracking the Anxiety Code, The Extraordinary Life of Dr Claire Weekes, reveals the story of the little-known mental-health pioneer who struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of readers around the world.

In her books, they found someone who had an instinctive understanding of their torment, and even better, a way to cure it. However, while her approach was welcomed by people struggling with anxiety, depression, insomnia and agoraphobia, Weekes was dismissed as under-qualified and overly populist by the psychiatric establishment.

Fighting the second fear

Born in 1903, she originally worked as a highly regarded research scientist studying reproduction in reptiles before turning to medicine. She suffered severe anxiety and heart palpitations in her 20s, after a TB misdiagnosis led to her being quarantined in a sanatorium in the Australian countryside for months.

“She had a very big personal interest in anxiety,” says Hoare. “So when she became a GP, she was intensely sympathetic to people in that state. But because she had also been a scientist, she could understand that connection between the body and mind, especially in terms of the fight or flight response.” It was this understanding of the biology of fear that underpinned Weekes’ approach.

“As a young zoologist, she learned that you can’t control the fight or flight response — if a sabre-toothed tiger comes at you, you can’t stop that reaction. In that reaction will be a racing heart, a tightening stomach, heavy breathing, they are bodily symptoms.

“What happens with people with ‘nervous’ illness, as it was called then, is that they’re standing in a queue in the bank, or they’re sitting in a cafe or they’re in a theatre, and all of a sudden some thought or worry triggers this inappropriate fight or flight response.

“There is no tiger, or physical threat but suddenly their bodies are filled with this uncontrolled terror.”

Weekes saw the initial response as the ‘first fear’. What concerned her as a physician was the ‘second fear’, something she thought a person could take charge of and tackle themselves.

“She knew that the first fight or flight response was the involuntary nervous system but then, in human beings, there’s your cognition, when your mind reflects on that flash, and it says, ‘oh no, what’s that, what if, will it happen again?’.

“So you then add a second fear. Her work was based on trying to interrupt that addition of the second fear to [the] first fear. She believed the way to manage this was to accept those feelings and try to understand, ‘this will pass if I don’t continue to fear it, if I utterly yield to it’. In that way your body doesn’t set up that vicious adrenaline/fear cycle.”

Weekes developed a mantra to calm the nervous system: face, accept, float and let time pass.

A unique mindfulness

Hoare says the concept of ‘float’ would probably be akin to mindfulness today but at the time it was a unique therapeutic approach, later seen in many of the underlining precepts of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

“Her advocacy of non-reactivity, or masterly inactivity, was then quite a foreign notion, just to yield entirely, and let those feelings run their course.”

Hoare says the success of Weekes’ approach was evident in the constant positive feedback she received from people she helped, first in her medical practice and later in her books.

“She developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the different ways in which the mind-body connection works, what was illness and what was nerves. By the time she sat down to write her books, at the age of 59, she was really good at explaining to people very simply how they had got into this state. She never turned anyone with a nervous illness away, her phone never stopped ringing, the mail never stopped.”

Weekes’ books gained her a huge following at home and abroad, and she appeared on TV shows in the US, Britain and in Ireland, where she was a guest on The Late Late Show.

However, the medical establishment was less receptive to her ideas. Hoare believes there were a number of factors behind this reaction, not just her gender. “It may have been because she was a woman but I think, more importantly, she was an outsider.

When she was addressing psychiatrists, all they could see was someone who was not a psychiatrist, the fact she was an evolutionary scientist with the highest awards in medicine didn’t matter, all they cared about was she she was not trained in their field.”

Weekes died in 1990 but her books still continue to sell and have been given a new lease of life through recommendations on social media. “She still helps people. The books are so comprehensive about all the different ways in which anxiety can present. She gives the reader coach-like exhortations; she believes in a cure.

She had suffered nervous illness, and she spoke in the first person to her readers and said, ‘this is how you feel, you will recover and it doesn’t matter how long you have been sick for, I will tell you the way out is quite simple — it may not be easy, but you can be cured.’ They were words of such hope when hope was needed.”

Claire Weekes’ theories on anxiety:

  • She saw anxiety as a function of the nervous system and believed in treating the nervous system first and thoughts second.
  • Mental illness — or what she termed ‘nervous’ illness — and severe anxiety were an exaggeration of the symptoms of stress as a result of sensitisation.
  • Sensitisation was caused by bewilderment and fear.
  • Bewilderment is a state of mind in which a person is constantly trying to figure out the cause of their anxiety. They become unable to find a way to cope with their anxiety, and this brings fear.
  • Fear is fear of the symptoms of anxiety, when you avoid situations that cause you to be anxious, and when your symptoms of anxiety occur, you become overwhelmed by fear.
  • She recommended not avoiding the situations that trigger anxiety and panic attacks, but rather to treat them as opportunities to learn how to cope with your anxiety and panic attacks.

The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code: The Extraordinary Life of Dr Claire Weekes, by Judith Hoare, €26.60, published by Scribe

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