Once dismissed as populist by psychologists, Claire Weekes’ ideas have moved into the mainstream, writes Joe Shute.

In 1977 a diminutive 74-year-old woman in tweed stood up to address the great and good of US psychology at a conference in New York.

The audience muttered, checked their watches and openly heckled as Dr Claire Weekes explained her pioneering work on anxiety and that the prevailing methods of psychoanalysis her peers relied upon were causing more harm than good. The response was predictably muted.

"They didn't see her as one of them," recalls her biographer Judith Hoare. "They had all heard from patients who had found her books very useful, but they didn't think this old woman in ordinary-looking clothes could cut it."

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By then Weekes had become a bestseller in Britain and the US, with her 1962 book, Self Help for Your Nerves, and two further books translated into at least eight languages. Despite the lack of acceptance she received from her contemporaries, she would go on to be regarded, according to Hoare, as "the hidden hand behind the modern therapeutic manual" and the woman who cracked the anxiety code.

Claire Weekes cured many thousands of people she never met. Photo / Getty Images
Claire Weekes cured many thousands of people she never met. Photo / Getty Images

The treatment method pioneered by Weekes was deceptively simple. She offered her patients just six words to confront their anxiety: face, accept, float, let time pass.
Today she continues to inform neuroscience and modern psychological techniques such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy. The writer and mental health campaigner Matt Haig is among the many modern-day champions of her work.

Judith Hoare, a 66-year-old former newspaper journalist turned author, first came across Weekes' work when she was in her 20s and suffering from her own anxiety. At the time she was working in the press gallery of the Australian Parliament in Canberra, one of a handful of women in a macho high-pressure environment. Hoare started to suffer heart palpitations which led to further feelings of anxiety. But when she picked up a copy of Weekes's book she found it a near-instant cure.

"I was struck at the time by the sheer simplicity of her explanation for anxiety and what she quaintly described as 'nerves'," she recalls. "I could feel this immense understanding and sympathy."

Author Judith Hoare.
Author Judith Hoare.
W

eekes, who died in 1990 aged 87, never trained as a psychologist. After growing up in a middle-class household she read zoology at the University of Sydney, specialising in the behaviour of lizards. In her 20s she was wrongly diagnosed with tuberculosis, causing her own anxiety to spiral.

In an interview in 1978, she criticised the doctor who denied her reassurance at that desperate time.

"One word from him then about sensitisation would have saved me two years of worry and suffering but perhaps it was just as well because what I learned then has helped me help hundreds of thousands of people," she said.

Despite the stress, she continued to excel in her studies and in 1929 won a Rockefeller scholarship to University College London. There she met an Australian World War I hero, Marcel Aurousseau, who would become her lover.

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Aurousseau attempted to alleviate her stress by describing the experiences of shell-shocked troops during the Battle of the Somme (in which he fought) and how soldiers would employ mental tricks to manage their trauma. His relayed experiences would go on to prove a founding tenet of Weekes' theories.

As an evolutionary scientist and medical doctor, she focused on the nervous system, how it engages both body and mind.

She identified fear of fear as the central cause of anxiety and specifically two very different fears which needed to be managed differently to break the anxiety cycle.
First was the primitive uncontrollable "fight or flight" alarm, common to all living organisms, followed by a second fear which reflected on the first.

"She didn't believe in looking at cause," Hoare recalls. "What she believed was at the heart of anxiety was the symptoms themselves."

Weekes and Aurousseau became engaged but Weekes broke it off in 1929.

A few years later she met the Australian pianist Elizabeth Coleman with whom she lived for the rest of her life. According to Hoare, it is not known whether or not they were lovers but she describes the pair as "soulmates".

During World War II she retrained in medicine, ostensibly to help with soldiers returning from the conflict, and after qualifying in 1945 started working as a GP in the Sydney suburbs.

Over the ensuing years, she began to see ever more anxiety cases, particularly among housewives, as men would tend to hide themselves away in the office or pub.
Soon she became regarded as something of a specialist. "I recognised in my patients what I had suffered myself," she once said.

She was working at a time when mental health was still taboo.

"In those days people didn't admit to it and there was shame associated to it," Hoare says.
But as well as exposing the anxiety epidemic she encountered, Weekes also broke new ground by speaking to patients of a "cure" for their symptoms.

In New Zealand, one young adult in every five has sought mental health treatment in the past year. Photo / Stock
In New Zealand, one young adult in every five has sought mental health treatment in the past year. Photo / Stock

In New Zealand, a new study found one young adult in every five has sought mental health treatment in the past year, as our first online generation struggles to get a start in a world of insecure work and housing.

The study followed a group of people born in Wellington in 1988-89 and also found 19 per cent of them "thought about or attempted suicide" in the year before they were last interviewed in 2014-15, aged 26.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister David Clark announced two weeks ago medical centres nationwide had been given $6 million to provide mental health services. Twenty-two general practices and a kaupapa Māori provider - which already work in the field but aren't funded - would get assistance.

The May Budget included a $1.9 billion boost for the mental health and addiction programmes over five years in a response to the largest inquiry into the sector in decades.

The inquiry saw 400 meetings and heard 5200 submissions from organisations and members of the public

Weekes had little time for the Freudian-dominated psychoanalysis of the time in which patients were encouraged to lie on a sofa and delve deeply into their own psyche. Instead, she worked with patients on controlling their mind to stem physical symptoms of anxiety: headaches, racing heart, dizziness and insomnia.

Dr Claire Weekes' treatment method was just six words: face, accept, float, let time pass. Photo / 123RF
Dr Claire Weekes' treatment method was just six words: face, accept, float, let time pass. Photo / 123RF

While not totally adverse to prescribing sedatives (the anti-depressants of the age) she had little time for what she described as "the chemical imbalance fashion".

"She said once you get your nerves under control the chemistry would right itself normally," Hoare says.

"The objective was to get people completely free from drugs.

"Instead of people fearing they had bizarre deep-seated problems that needed to be excavated, she explained what felt abnormal was just a trick of the nerves.

"She did not label people. It was just nervous illness."

She published her first book aged 59 and it proved an instant hit. At first, just 500 copies were printed but they sold out in three hours.

Numerous books followed over the ensuing decades and prompted Weekes to tour the globe. One lunchtime appearance on the BBC in London in 1983 elicited such a huge mailbag editors were forced to hire in freelance workers to help open it all.

At home, she stored the endless letters she received from grateful patients and readers in green rubble sacks.

While never gaining full acceptance by the psychiatric establishment in her own lifetime her work endures and according to Hoare, she is increasingly recognised around the world.

"Any psychologist today will talk about fear and how it works biologically," she says. "How fear engages the body is totally contemporary and she was explaining that 50 years ago."

Dismissed at one time as a mere "populist" her ideas have finally moved into the mainstream.

According to the distinguished US psychologist Dr David Barlow, whom Hoare contacted for her book, the treatments she helped develop have provided "unending benefit to millions of patients" over the years.

The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code: The Extraordinary Life of Dr Claire Weekes by Judith Hoare.
The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code: The Extraordinary Life of Dr Claire Weekes by Judith Hoare.