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The Forgotten Icon Who Predicted Acceptance Based Anxiety Treatment

Steven Topper LCPC

The totality with which patriarchal systems have shaped our culture is robust and only just beginning to be elucidated upon. Those systems seem to reach into every aspect of our lives, and one such place we see this show up is with our history. The histories of medicine and psychology are mostly focused on white men. When we learn about great changes in almost all scientific fields, we end up learning about men. As a result, countless pioneers from our past have gone relatively unnoticed. This is deeply unjust while also limiting to the sciences that have ignored such incredible voices. Shedding light on luminaries who didn’t get their due can allow those respective traditions to grow more inclusive and successful. And in the fields of psychology and medicine, Dr. Claire Weekes utilized innovative methods that were decades ahead of her time while being shunned by her respective institutions.

An October 2021 article from Judith Hoare identifies groundbreaking work of a physician in the 1950’s named Dr. Claire Weekes who utilized (at the time) little-known concepts that therapists and psychiatrists today are only beginning to fully understand and implement. In her early twenties, this promising academic scholar was sent to a sanatorium following multiple misdiagnoses by medical professionals. As Hoare describes, she was treated inhumanely, and began developing ideas of how to help soldiers she saw struggling with anxiety. It was there that she gained lifelong insight into ways PTSD, panic disorders, and phobias could be treated, all while not having names and diagnosis for those disorders. 

In the years following her discharge from the sanatorium, Weekes became a medical doctor and developed a specific niche for working with anxious patients. As her practice grew and results continued, her methods and theories gained traction within self-help communities while being gatekept by her profession. Clashing with what was at the time en-vogue Freudian analysis, Weekes focused on taking a more functional and acceptance-based approach to treating panic. Hoare notes that in the fields of psychology and psychiatry, Weekes was ignored during her lifetime, undoubtedly related to her gender. It’s likely that this ignorance cost those sciences decades of progress as burgeoning research today aligns with key pieces of Weekes approach. 

We can see how her work ties closely with the ways our current psychological and medical theories understand trauma and panic. In many ways her writing parallels Polyvagal theory, coined in the 1990’s around hormonal responses to perceived threat. The popular book The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk utilizes a physiological understanding of trauma in ways starkly congruent with Weekes. Most notably, her strategies to manage anxiety look a lot like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a leading area of psychotherapy that continues to build on traditions unknowingly related to Weekes. She distilled her treatment for panic down to a six word mantra: face, accept, float, let time pass. This mantra closely resembles ACT’s work to help people open up, be aware, and engage fully in their discomfort so as to move toward what’s most important. Weekes presciently utilized mindfulness with, “let time pass,” which allows the sufferer to contact the transience and ever-changing nature of their suffering. This is foundational to much of the literature included in what we now call third-wave behavior therapies, which are modern theories proving to be cutting edge effective treatment for a broad array of mental distress. Weekes also took a functional analytic perspective on fear, identifying that the problem with fear for many was their response to it. Instead of castigating the fear itself, Weekes saw that it wasn’t the enemy, the judgments and responses to the fear caused much of the distress. This aligns with most current psychotherapy traditions and has been proven in the lab over and over, many years after Weekes provided the foundation.

While she never received acknowledgment for her incredible work, modern science has confirmed what so many of her patients knew: Dr. Claire Weekes created profoundly impactful methods for managing some of the most crippling distress in our society. Unfortunately and unjustly, this work did not proliferate and it’s taken decades for psychology, psychiatry, and medicine to catch up to her incredible work. 

If you want to know more about how to utilize ACT-based methods to help with panic and anxiety, Contact Symmetry Counseling today to meet with one of our Chicago counselors in-person or via online counseling.

References

Hoare, Judith (2021, October 11). One Woman’s Six-Word Mantra That Has Helped To Calm Millions. Psyche. https://psyche.co/ideas/one-womans-six-word-mantra-that-has-helped-to-calm-millions

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