Face. Accept. Float. Let time pass. That’s the recipe that Dr. Claire Weekes, the Australian clinician and relatively underrecognized pioneer of modern anxiety treatment, established in a series of books (including “Hope and Help for Your Nerves,” her first) published from 1962 to 1989, the year before she died. This advice, when you encounter it in the midst of a cycle of breath-shortening attacks, may sound cruel.
First, Weekes says, you must decide to truly experience the panic, to let it burst out into your fingers, your gut, your skull. Then, sink into it like a warm pool. Finally, rather than mentally kicking your legs to keep your nose out of the water, flip onto your back. “Stop holding tensely onto yourself,” she writes, “trying to control your fear, trying ‘to do something about it’ while subjecting yourself to constant self-analysis.” Just float through it, observing that it’s happening and recognizing that it will end.
Weekes promises that “every unwelcome sensation can be banished, and you can regain peace of mind and body.” That’s a guarantee that, even in our cure-all-saturated world (Sex dust for orgasms! Crystals for … everything!), is hard to square. But her advice, hard-earned through her own lifelong anxiety, which would wake her out of sleep to torment her, is so simple that “Hope and Help” essentially turns into a soothing repetition of two points. First, that what we’re mostly afraid of is fear. And second, that “by your own anxiety you are producing the very feelings you dislike so much.” Page after page offers the reassuring reminder that you can best fight your panic by refusing to fight the panic.
And in short: It works.
Weekes’s tactics have trickled out in drabs to influence much of cognitive behavioral therapy’s approach to panic. She was no lightweight — first an evolutionary biologist, then a general practitioner and made a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1973. Psychiatrists poo-pooed her theories in her day — her biographer Judith Hoare writes that as the guest speaker at a prominent psychotherapy conference in 1977, fellow doctors belittled her lack of formal training and “looked at their watches and talked among themselves” — but her work was propelled by word of mouth (“Hope and Help” had sold more than 400,000 copies by 1978), and a cultish devotion to her simple and direct advice means that today the book is prized by the readers, including me, whom it has guided out of emotional suffocation. A scroll through its Amazon reviews turns up one gushing convert after another.
The language of self-help, especially of the mental health variety, often emphasizes resilience and grit, like we’re mixed martial artists who ought to stand firm after every wallop. (“Badass Ways to End Anxiety & Stop Panic Attacks!,” exclamation point included, is one of the sponsored books Amazon shows above Weekes’s books.) But “Hope and Help for Your Nerves,” which walks us through every possible physical symptom of panic — from “giddinesss” to “sore scalp” — sounds practically Victorian to our modern ears, in both its lingo and its prescription. Weekes refers to panic as “nervous illness,” and illustrates it with images like the shaking hands of a vicar’s wife as she struggles with “cups of tea rattling in their saucers.”