Rediscovering a self help classic

By Geoff Harris

So here we are in the middle of another lockdown and if you are struggling even more with this one, you are not alone. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which represents the profession in the UK, the number of people experiencing severe mental illnesses and needing urgent care amid the ongoing pandemic has become a serious cause for concern.

Whether their calls for more government funding to help with the anticipated surge of mental health services will be met is unsure, but in the meantime, if you are feeling on the edge, make sure you are supporting yourself as much as possible.

A classic book to read, which I have rediscovered recently, is Self Help for Your Nerves by Dr Claire Weekes, which was first published in 1962. It’s become a self-help classic, and with good reason, as many of Dr Weekes’ key teachings are highly relevant in 2020.

The book is still in print; although the language can sound archaic to our modern ears ­‘nervous breakdown’ isn’t a term used that often any more, and let’s skip over the references to middle-aged housewives ­– much of Weekes’ approach echoes modern Cognitive Behavourial Therapy and, indeed, mindfulness.

Don’t run from fear and anxiety

Weekes encourages readers to avoid trying to ‘run away’ from fear or panic. “Analyse it and see it as no more than a physical feeling,” she writes. “Do not be bluffed by a physical feeling.” This is a key teaching from a lot of meditation schools, not to mention CBT – a thought is just a thought, not reality, and not all thoughts are created equal. She is also an advocate of trying to find solutions to problems in order to settle them – if not with action, then with a new point of view. In other words, by being kind to yourself if you made a big mistake that can’t be rectified, rather than beating yourself up about it and spoiling the rest of your life.

Don’t fight, but float

The idea of ‘floating’ is a key part of Weekes’ approach. Rather than trying to struggle against anxiety and overcome it, using a range of techniques gleaned from books or blogs, instead try to ‘float’ through it by allowing the sensations to pass over time. This is particularly significant if you suffer from OCD, as it will help you see that anxiety, although it seems overwhelming at first, does subside if you let it, with no disastrous consequences. Weekes was helping people with health anxiety before it was called as such.

Furthermore, there is no need for OCD sufferer to perform the rituals and compulsions to keep the terror at bay and somehow avoid bad things happening. Practicing floating also restores your confidence in your own abilities to deal with difficult feelings and situations. “By floating, I mean letting that wave of fear break and sweep past you, while you carry on in spite of it,” Weekes writes. “When you can do this, you will retain your ability to think calmly, and calamity can never completely overwhelm you again.”

Acceptance and action

You may have heard of ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – as developed by Stephen Hayes in the 1980s. Claire Weekes also emphasised the importance of accepting your obsessions/fears and being prepared to live with them temporarily, while also maintaining a strong set of values and a commitment to taking positive action to improve your situation. She was adamant that sufferers should not wallow in self-pity and need to keep occupied, whether through work or some other meaningful activity. “Be occupied. Do not lie in bed brooding. Be occupied calmly, not feverishly trying to forget yourself.”

Recognise your mind is tired

When talking about nervous breakdowns, Weeks also describes how the mind becomes worn out by rumination and anxiety, so sufferers can’t think straight. She counsels letting time pass before making major or rash decisions that could have major consequences, and practicing impulse control.

You can only analyse so much – and be brave

Weekes, who lived from 1903-1990, began her career a time when Freudian analysis was very much in vogue. As with the founders of CBT however, she realised that for many people with anxiety, endless examination of its possible roots in childhood was not giving them much in the way of practical tools to cope with every day life. Her programme is an active and determined one, that also requires courage and perseverance. At the end of the day, her message is a very positive and practical one. “Do not measure your progress day by day. Don’t count the months, years, you have been ill and despair at the thought f them. Once you are on the road to recovery, recovery is inevitable, however protracted your illness may have been.”

Self Help for Your Nerves is widely available either new or second hand so the next time this lockdown makes you feel you are on the verge of a panic attack or total breakdown, remember her sage advice from nearly 60 years ago. “Face. Accept. Float. Let time pass. If you do this you must get well.”

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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