book review

Review: The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code

7 September 2020

Judith Hoare: The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code: The Extraordinary Life of Dr Claire Weekes
Scribe Publications, 2020.
ISBN, 9781922310439, pp. 416, $29.99


Face, accept, float, let time pass. This was the six-word mantra that gave hundreds of thousands of people control over their anxiety.

Australian journalist Judith Hoare chronicles the fascinating life of Dr Claire Weekes in The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code. Weekes, an Australian general practitioner, became a household name during the 1960s and 70s after writing self-help books to assist readers in overcoming their ‘nervous illness’. Unfortunately, her revolutionary approach to treating anxiety and agoraphobia, and the contributions her writings made to modern approaches to mental health, were overlooked by her contemporaries and went without scientific recognition.

After being misdiagnosed with tuberculosis in her early twenties, Weekes experienced her own unexplained nervous illness for two years. She understood the fear evoked by a pounding heart and drew upon her own experiences to counsel her readers. After receiving advice from a former soldier, she realised that what caused her nervousness was the fear of her physiological response to fear. Essentially, she feared fear itself which only increased her symptoms.

In 1962 her first of three books, Self Help for Your Nerves, was published and became a bestseller in Australia and abroad. What made Weekes’ writings unique to other books concerning psychiatry and mental illness at the time was that she directly addressed the reader as she would a patient. Weekes provided her readers with an understandable explanation of the psychosomatic presentation of anxiety, believing that ‘understanding is the forerunner of cure.’ Suffers paradoxically needed to accept their fears in order to relieve themselves of nervousness; they needed to relinquish control over their body’s physiological effects in order to be rid of them.

Her contemporary medical approach to curing ‘nervousness’ gained international recognition and praise among readers, but her writings sparked controversy among psychiatrists. Her writing was dismissed as another popular self-help book written by someone who lacked credentials – Weekes held a doctorate in science, was a Doctor of Medicine and worked as a practising general practitioner. She offered her readers the optimistic view that they could control and manage their stress, and that patients had the ability to overcome their nervousness if given appropriate treatment, a controversial and unfavourable opinion at the time.

Hoare goes beyond delving into Weekes’ psychological findings and reveals how Weekes drew upon her experience as an internationally renowned biologist to inform her anxiety research. Interesting, Weekes began her academic career studying the biology of lizards and how it can influence the understanding of mammalian evolution. She later shifted her focus to neurology and understanding how the mind and body can be affected by fear. This was conducted alongside her foray into travelling Europe as a pianist, writing travel columns, opening a European travel agency, and writing a comprehensive guide to travelling Australia –which was never completed due to the outbreak of WWII.

The biography balances the professional, the scientific, and the personal aspects of Weekes’ life to provide an insight into the interesting life of an incredibly unconventional woman. Hoare draws upon the writings of Weekes’ predecessors to provide context surrounding the evolution of behavioural and psychological studies, and how Weekes’ findings acted as a precursor to modern Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. The care she demonstrated towards her patients went above and beyond that or normal practice and this biography lends an even greater appreciation to Weekes’ character and professional accomplishments.

Readers will gain as much appreciation of Weekes’ ground-breaking insights into anxiety as they will the matriarchal role she took on within her family and the many sufferers she allowed to phone her personally, free of charge. The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code is a rewarding read that looks into the science of anxiety and the woman who gave hundreds of thousands of readers control of their lives back.

‘Complete cure does not necessarily mean absence of symptoms, although it can. It means knowing how to cope with the symptoms stress may present, at any time, any place.’ – Dr Claire Weekes

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