The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code

From The Wall Street Journal:

As we have been reminded of late, there is an astonishing complexity—and at times fragility—to our mental and physical health, and we owe a debt to the legions of scientists whose insights and discoveries, over the years, have improved our chances of well-being. Alas, too many of them are unknown to us. One name that was once broadly known has fallen into lamentable obscurity—that of Claire Weekes, an Australian doctor who did ground-breaking work on one of the great scourges of humanity. With Judith Hoare’s “The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code,” we have a chance to learn about Weekes’s varied life and, as important, become reacquainted with her work.

Decades before her death in 1990 at the age of 87, Weekes had been a global sensation, reaching millions of people through her books—“transfusions of hope,” she called them. One of the original self-helpers, she believed that sufferers could master themselves without the aid of professionals, and the strategies she gave them were firmly grounded in the biology of anxiety.

Weekes didn’t plan on medicine as a career, Ms. Hoare tells us. In 1928, at the age of 25, she began graduate studies in zoology in London on a prestigious fellowship. When her beloved mentor died of a stroke, she developed severe heart palpitations. Doctors misinterpreted her condition as tuberculous and sent her to a sanatorium. There she fell into a general state of fear. Six months later, doctors retracted their diagnosis, and Weekes, now nearly incapacitated by stress, resumed her research.

The turning point came when she confided in a friend, a World War I veteran, that she suffered from a frenzied heartbeat. “Far from being surprised or concerned,” Ms. Hoare writes, “he shrugged,” saying: “Those are only the symptoms of nerves.” He told Weekes, in Ms. Hoare’s paraphrase, that “her heart continued to race because she was frightened of it. It was programmed by her fear. This made immediate sense.”

The explanation was deceptively profound, going straight to the core of the mind-body connection. 

. . . .

Weekes had hypothesized a “first fear and second fear” process. The first is a reflex—and the problem in many anxiety disorders is that the reflex is set off for no obvious reason. The second is the conscious feeling of fear. Relief of suffering, for her, came when she learned to quell the “fear of the first fear,” thereby short-circuiting the cycle that was set in motion by the original, unbidden rush of panic: the pounding heart. According to Ms. Hoare, Weekes “immediately grasped the point that she needed to stop fighting the fear.” She had cracked the code.

But this insight would not reach the public for another 30 years. After becoming the first woman to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Science at Sydney University, Weekes conducted research in endocrinology and neurology. Eventually she sought a more pragmatic occupation and enrolled in medical school at age 38. During her work as a general practitioner, she felt special sympathy for her anxious patients and began to counsel them to do as she herself had done: “float past” panic, give bodily sensations and fearful thoughts no power. One of her patients asked for written advice. Her pages to him became “Self Help for Your Nerves,” published in 1962, when Weekes was 59; the book rocketed up the bestseller lists in the U.S. and the U.K. As Ms. Hoare shows, Weekes’s contributions to human welfare live on in mindfulness training and forms of behavioral therapy, sometimes combined with medication. Contemporary neuroscience has vindicated her theory.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)