30 Nov 2019

Cracking the anxiety code: the extraordinary Claire Weekes

From Saturday Morning, 8:32 am on 30 November 2019

'Face, accept, float, let time pass' – that's the six-word prescription for anxiety devised by Australian doctor and self-help pioneer Claire Weekes (1903 - 1990).

Yet despite her international bestsellers and rich contribution to how anxiety is understood and treated, Weekes has never quite got the credit she deserves.

In her new biography The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code, journalist Judith Hoare tells Weekes' extraordinary story and tries to set the record straight.

Australian GP and anxiety specialist Claire Weekes

Australian GP and anxiety specialist Claire Weekes Photo: Courtesy of Scribe Publications

Weekes wrote about anxiety from personal experience, Hoare tells Kim Hill.

As a young zoology scholar in the 1920s, she started getting heart palpitations and a cardiologist couldn't find anything wrong.

Weekes was wrongly diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanatorium in the country.

There, amongst dying people, she became even more distressed yet still managed to finish her doctorate and win a scholarship to London.

Claire Weekes circa 1930

Claire Weekes circa 1930 Photo: Public domain

Once in the UK, Weekes ran into an old friend and described the anxiety attacks she was so tired of, Hoare says.

"[The friend] said we all had those in the trenches. You've just been tricked by your nerves. The thing is just to get on with life and float past it all.

"She said 'oh, you mean I've been frightening myself? He said 'exactly' and laughed.

Weekes' discovery that she had been frightened of fear itself was a profound revelation for her, and her anxiety soon began to fade.

She continued her science career until – after a stint as a singer and a travel writer – she began studying medicine during WWII and became a doctor after the war.

At that time, a Freudian 'excavation of feelings' was the norm in anxiety treatment, Hoare says.

But Weekes was certain that people needed practical help immediately – and they could learn to help themselves.

"Permanent recovery lies in the patient's ability to know how to accept the panic until he no longer fears it," she later wrote.

Weekes based her understanding of anxiety on the biology of fear, which had two aspects as she saw it – 'first fear' and 'second fear'.

'First fear' is primal and activated when animals sense danger.

But then – only in humans, as far as we know – a 'second fear' develops, based on our negative thoughts and feelings about fear itself.

Although we can't control first fear, we have the ability not to 'add' second fear.

The way to do this is, Weekes said, is to fully experience the panic and learn to "pass through" to the other side of it – 'face the anxiety, accept it, float through it, and let time pass'.

'Floating' – which Weekes called "masterly inactivity" – is the key concept here, Hoare says.

It's essentially about learning to let go: not "holding tensely onto yourself, trying to control your fear, trying 'to do something about it", as Weekes said.

When you 'let time pass', you let the panic pass, Hoare says.

"You engage with that process and you let the fear burn right through you … you pass through panic.

"Because if you start fighting with it on the way through, if you start adding second fear to first fear, you stay in that tunnel of panic."

Judith Hoare

Judith Hoare Photo: Judith Hoare

Hoare randomly discovered Weekes' ideas in her early 20s, shortly after she'd been through an inexplicable bout of panic and heart palpitations herself.

Weekes' work helped her start to understand the mind-body connection, she says, and be a little easier on herself.

"The problem wasn't that I hadn't been trying, the problem was I'd been trying too hard.

'When you're hearts racing you don't feel alright, so when someone says 'look, don't worry, that's just because you keep getting frightened of [how you're feeling]', that's pretty curative in its own right.

"The great thing she offered was if you get setbacks, if whatever bothers you come back, that's not to be feared. You just use that as another opportunity to practise her method, which is 'face, accept, float and let time pass'. I think she offered encouragement when so many people [had] no-one personally giving them hope and encouragement.

"[If you have anxiety] you need hope and you need belief. [Weekes] also said it doesn't matter how long you have been ill … you can recover. Your mind is waiting to recover in the same way as your body would recover from an injury – if you approach it in the right way."

Weekes saw that the attitude we have to our own anxiety is key, Hoare says.

"If you understand that there is a very simple biological explanation for what's going on, and you understand that, you will get hope and say 'oh, I see what I'm doing' ... it takes the darkness out of it.

"It's a dark place, anxiety. People think they're going mad. And [Weekes] shone a light on it."