Afraid of Being Afraid

A week after my ninth birthday I was sent from the South Pacific to boarding school in England. Flying half way around the globe in the 1960s took three days with numerous stops as well as changing planes and overnight stays in Fiji and Los Angeles. From the minute I walked across the airstrip at Tarawa to climb up the plane’s steps, there would be no way of speaking to my parents for months. The only means of communication was to write blue aerogram letters and hope for answers within a few weeks.

Homesick …

Cavernous corridors of polished linoleum characterised my cold English boarding school which was in stark contrast to our sunny, sandy and palm-fronded Pacific island. I shivered incessantly, inside and out, and wished I was home.

… and Scared

My mother may have had an inkling of what home-sickness could feel like. Intending to distract me, she enrolled me in a plethora of ‘extras’, including horse-riding. I was petrified of the horses. They seemed big, dangerous and stupid, never doing what I asked regardless of how much the instructor shouted at me. Perhaps I was the stupid one since, it didn’t matter what I did, she kept on shouting … a lot.

Fear ... and Fear of Fear
Fear … and Fear of Fear

Someone, maybe the instructor, told me that it was important not to show my fear because horses could ‘pick it up’. So what was I supposed to do? Pretend I was not afraid? Now I was definitely afraid of being afraid! Should I hide and not go to the expensive lessons that my parents had paid for? Would I be punished for hiding? Perhaps the punishment would be worse than the crime. My fear got worse as did my fear of the fear.

“Self Help for Your Nerves”

Dr Claire Weekes*, published “Self Help for Your Nerves”** in 1962 (the year I was born). It may not be an exaggeration to say that she helped millions to recover from nervous illness. Previous ‘informed’ opinion was that there was no cure for anxiety but Dr Weekes offered promise of full recovery.

Her remedy was actually simple although, as she said, “not easy”. The prescription was “Facing …, Accepting …, Floating …, and Letting Time Pass.” Dr Weekes defined two types of the fear. ‘First fear’ flashes instinctively and instantaneously through the body creating responses like sweating and palpitations. It is the kind of life-preserving, adrenaline-producing, ‘fight or flight’ response needed in the face of extreme threat like a lion attack. ‘Second fear’ follows with increasingly panicked ‘What if …?’ thoughts.

Oh Shit!

We practice these catastrophic thoughts of “oh shit, here I go again”, reminding ourselves of previous painful and out-of-control experiences, and train our expertise in panicking. As I hear the riding instructor shout, I spiral downwards into “Oh shit, here we go again, what if I can’t stop this stupid pony and he knows I can’t do it and I’m stupid and afraid and soon he’ll bolt and I’ll fall off and it will hurt and what if I die? … and I hate this and I’ll never be good at it and what if they’re all laughing at me? … and … and …” and I become more afraid of being afraid.

Genius is often ahead of its time. It took decades for Dr Claire Weekes’ definition of two types of fear to be confirmed by science and neurology. Weekes claimed that the only way to break the brain habit of panic is by ‘acceptance’ and not by fighting the fear, squashing it down, rejecting it or pretending it does not exist.

Pretend? …

Approach a sensitive horse when you are petrified and the horse will act out. Approach a sensitive horse when you are pretending not to be petrified … and? The horse will probably go ‘ape-shit’ (a technical term)! Horses do indeed ‘pick up’ on the feelings of those around them, probably especially those which are repressed. They are herd animals and feelings are contagious for them (as they can be for us).

We rely on each other

So what can we do? Dr Weekes’ advice was to learn how to live through panic and not to be panicked by it. “Facing …, Accepting …, Floating …, and Letting Time Pass.” We may have adrenaline symptoms – shallow breathing, sweating, flushing, thumping heart – but then we have thoughts and our thoughts are just thoughts. To fight them gives them power. Accept that they are just thoughts and ‘float’ (which does not mean ‘relaxing’ but rather allowing feelings to come and go).

Or Be Authentic?

What I have begun to learn is that I can accept and acknowledge how I truly feel (with a bodyscan***) and I can ‘float’ with the feeling and even learn from it, without denying it, pushing it away, fighting it or covering it up. I can be authentic. I can accept myself as I am, whatever I feel in the moment. I can come home to myself. My thoughts do not matter. They are not important. When I am in touch with authenticity, even my most sensitive horse tells me that I am in touch with her; I can cope and so can she.

Whatever has sensitised a person to nervous illness was not important to Dr Weekes who said “The habit of fear is the important thing now. This must be cured.” She believed it takes only a few weeks for those suffering from severe nervous illness to feel better if they follow her protocol and a couple of months to be cured.

Floating … and going with the flow

“Many of those who suffer from nervousness are persons of fine sensibilities and delicate regard for honour, endowed with a feeling of duty and obligation toward others. Their nerves have tricked them, misled them.” Dr W R Houston, an American neurologist who witnessed mental suffering in a French hospital during WWI.

References

  • *Hoare, J. The Woman Who Cracked The Anxiety Code. The Extraordinary Life of Dr Claire Weekes. Scribe Publications. 2019.
  • **Weekes, H. C. Self Help For Your Nerves. Angus & Robertson. 1962.

Judith Hoare’s fascinating and comprehensive biography of the life and work of Dr Claire Weekes was my principal resource.

Caveat

I am just a passionate amateur with loads of interests. My motivation is simply to help others find peace in a turbulent world. In my opinion, the better we each feel and the more we support each other, the stronger and more successful we all become. I volunteer my help to support your emotional wellbeing. I receive no financial benefit from any of the links.

More blog posts to follow very soon … and here are …

Some Useful Links …

Inner Influencing link to the free Quickstart AND a discounted link to the online course

Rosie Withey’s Bodyscan ***

Feldenkrais Method with Alfons Grabher