Passage of time the ultimate cure for anxiety

6 mins read


It is Saturday and we are, once again, watching a hurricane dance up the Atlantic coastline. This is a tango we’ve done before; but Isaias doesn’t create quite the same anxiety as storms in the past.

Isaias does make one wonder about an evacuation complicated by masks, antiseptic wipes and keeping one’s distance in a crowded gymnasium.

When I was younger I didn’t worry about much — I lived day to day assuming that most of my problems were temporary and would be successfully resolved.

I remember sitting in West African airports waiting for planes that had not arrived, and sometimes never arrived, and not being too concerned. Eventually, I surmised as I sat on my backpack reading a paperback copy of “Heart of Darkness,” a plane would come and deliver me from Abidjan or Dakar or Brazzaville.

If Air Afrique was indifferent to schedules, who was I to insist on a predictable, published timetable?

But that would changed with the acquisition of a house, a mortgage and a child. Banks, utility companies and creditors insisted on a schedule and were not indifferent if one was late with a payment.

As I began to take on more years, more seniority, I also became more attuned to misfortune, tragedy and the seemingly random visitation of melanoma and congestive heart failure.

And so, grudgingly, I started to worry — sometimes waking at 4:30 in the morning absolutely sure I failed to file a document that needed to stamped by the Clerk of Court.

Knowing that sleep was impossible, I would get into my entirely unreliable Volvo 240 and drive though the darkened streets of our small town to my Carteret Street office. Then I would run in the door, up the steps and discover — in most cases — that I had filed the worrisome document, met the arbitrary deadline.

All of which brings me to Claire Weeks.

In her practice, Dr. Weeks regularly dealt with anxiety — fear at 4 in the morning — and developed a simple protocol. At the moment I’m reading a book about the Australian physician and how she “cracked the anxiety code”.

In her book, “Self Help For Your Nerves”, she explained that with anxiety there are actually two “fears,” the first of which is the survival response — the dumb alarm of fight or flight.

But Weeks said this first fear was followed by a second fear, which she identified as a feeling that could be described as “What if (add in catastrophic thought)?”

“Oh my goodness here it is! I can’t stand it. I might make a fool of myself in front of all these people! Let me out of here!”

“The first fear,” she said, “was normal in its intensity; we understand it and accept it because when the danger passes the fear will also pass.” But it’s the 2nd fear — or “fear of fear” — that then triggers a cycle of panic making the heart race and the stomach churn.

When Weeks published her book in 1962 the psychiatric community did not like it’s simplicity. She had the temerity to say that anxiety “could be cured” by facing the fear, accepting it, and then letting oneself float past the fearful images. Most psychiatrists deplored any sort of self help; any airport bookstore bought-therapy; especially any therapy that bypassed hours of analysis on a leather couch.

But her book sold like hotcakes. And Claire Weeks became a bestselling author in Australia, in the UK and, of course, in the United States. And since the publication of the book in 1962, neurobiologists have given scientific heft to of her simple maxims of facing the fear, accepting it and then floating past it.

I must admit that I’ve tried her “cure” and it has helped me. In the past I tried to talk myself through the anxiety saying, “This thing that I’m fearing is not going to happen, its not real …”

But fear itself is not rational; it doesn’t respond to a persuasive, rational lectures — its going to stick around regardless of your “self talk.” But the “floating past the fear” is the imagery that has helped me.

I’m a swimmer and take to the waters, both chlorinated and brackish, several times a week. So the notion of moving water is one that works for me.

But it’s the passage of time, of course, that’s the ultimate cure. We know that what has us terrified at four in the morning, will (with a couple of cups of coffee) be gone by eight.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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