An anxious client of mine discovered a book, originally written in 1969(!) which has helped her reduce panic attacks—and she even gave me a copy. Hope and Help for Your Nerves by Dr. Claire Weekes is an enlightening book about how to decrease anxiety or what the good doctor calls “nervous” suffering. Her approach is simple, straightforward, and eminently doable, and I highly recommend it. After all, in many cases, reducing anxiety and fear decreases unwanted, mindless eating.
Weekes’ premise is that the meaning you mistakenly make of feelings and symptoms of panic and anxiety are your real problem, not the feelings and symptoms themselves. Typical indications of “nervous” suffering are foggy confusion, derealization, dread, fatigue, internal shakiness, racing thoughts, tightness in the chest, irregular heartbeat, and stomach fluttering. When we’re tired and under pressure or physical or emotional stress, says Weekes, we sometimes develop these manifestations. They generally come and go and, assuming they’re not caused by medical problems, are benign.
Symptoms may even occur when we’re neither tired nor stressed. For example, decades ago, I had skipped heartbeats for nearly six months, although my heart checked out fine medically. I didn’t enjoy the sensations, but I didn’t make more of them than my body doing something weird. In fact, I went hiking in Colorado with them and they didn’t ruin my vacation. Oddly, just as they appeared one day, they left the same way. To this moment, I have no idea what they were all about.
Here’s the process that Weekes recommends to reduce and eliminate anxiety and panic attacks: 1) Face or acknowledge your symptoms. Don’t pretend you’re not feeling what you are definitely feeling; 2) Whole-heartedly accept them. Don’t fight what’s going on, but acknowledge that, yup, this is exactly what’s happening right now. Go with the flow—palpitations, chest tightness, the shakes, confusion, a sense of life being surreal, whatever; 3) Float through them. Let them happen without making a big deal of them or pushing them away. Don’t make more of them than they are and, this is key: don’t give them meaning. Don’t think they’re anything in particular. Think of them as clouds you’re drifting through. The major mistake that people make with panic and anxiety symptoms is to ascribe to them (the wrong) meaning. 4) Let time pass. You know from experience that these symptoms subside on their own. They come, they go. Always, right?
I bet that these steps are the exact opposite of what you’ve been doing: trying to ignore, minimize or deny symptoms, fighting them, magnifying them, trying to change what’s happening, focusing on being anxious, thinking there’s something wrong with you, being impatient and pushing for “recovery.”
Here are my favorite quotes from the book: “A nervously ill person is so easily bluffed by his feelings of the moment because they are so hard to bear and therefore seem so important.” Exactly! We assume that the harder something is to tolerate, the more importance it has. Not true. Anxious feelings may actually “mean” nothing at all. They may be simply a physical reaction generated by a highly sensitive nervous system (due to your upbringing or genetics) to which you’ve attributed a negative meaning. Having these symptoms is like discomfort arising in an over-sensitive tooth occasionally. You’ve had the tooth checked out and there’s nothing wrong with it, so you don’t need to pay attention to what you’re feeling except to register it happening, then forget about it.
And this quote: “The backwaters of memory can make a good burial ground, and it is wise not to dig there unnecessarily.” Her message: unless you’re rooting around memory for a specific, conscious reason, you’ve no reason to go there, so stay away!
Finally, Weekes says about courage that it’s born of yearning, deep desire that you cannot live without something. And when you fiercely want something, you get the courage to go after it. I would add that once you have the courage, you need the skills to get what you want. So, yearning (for peace of mind) generates courage which demands learning the skills to live a calm, sane, rational life—that has no room for “nervous” suffering.