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This work offers help to those suffering from the commonest kind of nervous illness - the anxiety state (often called nervous breakdown). In addition, Dr Claire Weekes offers advice to those whose illness is dominated by a particular fear - agoraphobia.
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Dr. Claire Weekes is the author of the bestselling Peace from Nervous Suffering, also available in a Signet edition. In addition, Dr. Weekes, best known for her pioneering work in the study of nervous illness and anxiety, has lectured at psychiatric hospitals in Britain and has spoken often on radio and television both in Britain and in the United States.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Sensitization: The Simple Cause of So Much Nervous Illness
If nervous suffering has led you to this book, you may have picked it up with both hope and doubt. Possibly you have tried so hard to recover in the past and have—as you think—let yourself down so often that you may hesitate to trust yourself to try again. Perhaps you have been ill so long you suspect you are beyond help. Small wonder doubt is mixed with hope. And yet, I assure you, however often you may have failed in the past, however long you may have suffered, you can recover.
Perhaps, like so many of my nervously ill patients, you have no personality defect making or keeping you ill; indeed, you may have no particular problem except finding the way to recovery. Many of my patients were happy in their home life and at work until they became ill. They then became afraid of the state they were in, of the way they felt—not only of what was happening at the time but also of what they feared might yet be in store. Without realizing it, their nerves had tricked them, duped them.
TRICKS YOUR NERVES PLAY
Through the years I have seen every shade of every trick my patients’ nerves have played upon them; I saw how easily, how unwittingly, many were led into nervous illness, and because of this I want to open your eyes to the way your nerves could now be tricking you.
We should know there are three special pitfalls that can lead to nervous illness, and above all we should know how to cope with them. The three pitfalls are sensitization, bewilderment, and fear. Sensitization is a state in which nerves are conditioned to react to stress in an exaggerated way; that is, they bring unusually intense feelings when under stress, and at times with alarming swiftness.
There is no mystery about sensitization. Most of us have surely felt it in a mild way when we have been working under pressure and our nerves have become alerted to respond too quickly, too acutely, to situations that would, at other times, leave us unmoved. When mildly sensitized, we may be irritated by those near us, impatient with driving home in heavy traffic or waiting for the evening bus. We continue working, driving, traveling, however, and these feelings will gradually pass.
On the other hand, severe sensitization can be upsetting indeed. Besides feeling painfully edgy and agitated, a severely sensitized person may feel his heart constantly beating quickly, “missing” beats, or thumping; he may have recurring attacks of palpitations; he may feel his stomach churn—especially on waking in the morning or after an afternoon nap. His hands may tremble and sweat. He may have difficulty expanding his chest to take in a deep breath and may—in the words of one woman—gasp and gulp for air. He may complain of a lump in his throat which seems to interfere with swallowing solid food, or he may have weak turns. He may suffer from headaches—a feeling of weight pressing on top of his head, of an “iron band” around it; giddiness; or a sensation of lurching, swaying, or of being pulled to one side while walking.
Most alarming of all, panic may come so easily and swiftly that the slightest shock may bring it: perhaps no more than the unexpected sound of a slamming door. More bewildering still, panic may come for no apparent reason. Although these are no more than the usual symptoms of stress exaggerated by sensitization, the sufferer rarely recognizes them as stress symptoms. He thinks they are unique to him, that no one could have possibly suffered this way before.
One need not be a special type to become sensitized. Quite severe sensitization can be suddenly and unexpectedly thrust upon any one of us at any time. It may follow the stress of a physical shock to our nerves, such as an exhausting surgical operation, a heavy hemorrhage, a difficult confinement, an accident, and so on.
For example, when severe sensitization follows a surgical operation, the simplest postoperative routine—such as a finger prick for a blood count or the dressing of a wound—can almost reduce its victim to tears. Any frustration, perhaps no more than waiting for the doctor to arrive, may bring intense agitation and make nerves feel so taut that a sudden noise jars painfully. Also, panic can follow the slightest anxious thought: hence the necessity to understand sensitization and know how to cope with it.
A retired nursing sister who had been in charge of a surgical ward for years said recently, “If I had known more about sensitization when I was nursing, how much more understanding I could have given my patients.” At that time she was sensitized herself.
Of course, severe sensitization can come about more slowly. It may gradually accompany continuous domestic stress, too strenuous dieting, a debilitating illness—anything that puts nerves under stress for a prolonged time. The stress need not necessarily be unhappy. An actor constantly alert to give his best performance may become quite sensitized, especially if he neglects sleep and food.
THE PATTERN IS LIMITED
Since the symptoms of sensitization are the symptoms of stress, they conform to the usual pattern of stress symptoms. This pattern is set, limited, because nerves under stress always release the same chemicals, which act on the same organs and always produce the same results. It comforts a sufferer to learn that the pattern of his suffering is limited and that he has probably already experienced the severest symptoms his nerves can bring. I have seen this information alone cure some people. Because their body had brought them so many surprises in the past and had, as they thought, let them down so badly, they were constantly worried about what further surprises the future might yet hold.
HOW NERVES NORMALLY FUNCTION
When we say someone is suffering from nerves, we do not only mean nerves are stimulated to bring certain symptoms, but we also imply that nerves have “gone wrong” and are somehow at fault. Actually they are responding faithfully and physiologically to the messages sent to them. To be cured one should understand this, and to do so it is essential to know how nerves normally function. Although I described this in detail in my earlier book, Hope and Help for Your Nerves, it is necessary to repeat the description at least briefly here.
Our nervous system consists of two parts: voluntary and involuntary. By means of our voluntary nerves we move our muscles (hence our body) more or less as we wish. These nerves obey our direct command, so we call them voluntary. The involuntary nerves help our glands control the functioning of our organs—heart, lungs, bowels, and so on. Unlike the voluntary nerves, we have (with a few exceptions) no direct control over them—hence the term “involuntary.”
The involuntary nerves themselves consist of two divisions, sympathetic and parasympathetic. In a peaceful body these two hold each other in check. If we are emotional, however—afraid, angry, excited, agitated—the sympathetic usually dominates the parasympathetic, and we are aware of certain organs functioning: We may feel our heart race and pound, we may breathe quickly, our hands may sweat, and so on. Sympathetic nerves produce these reactions mainly by means of a chemical called adrenaline, which is released at the nerve endings in the organs concerned.
Normally when afraid, we accept our racing heart, rapid breathing, even the spasm of fear in our “middle,” because we know that when the cause of the fear goes, these reactions will also pass. Our feelings calm because we no longer think fearfully. Changing mood (attitude) is the only conscious control other than medication we have over our symptoms of stress. I emphasize this because understanding it is of paramount importance in understanding recovery from so much nervous illness.
BEWILDERMENT AND FEAR
Now I come to a point I wish to highlight: The symptoms of much nervous illness are no more than the symptoms of stress exaggerated by severe sensitization. One might well ask, What is the difference between severe sensitization and nervous illness? When do we say someone is merely sensitized and when nervously ill? And how does he pass from sensitization to nervous illness?
We say a person is nervously ill when sensitization upsets him so much that it interferes with his way of life. Someone who has never been sensitized might well then ask, What keeps a person sensitized long enough for this to happen? And this is a good question, because it brings us face to face with those other two culprits previously mentioned, bewilderment and fear.
Bewilderment and fear keep sensitization alive. Bewilderment acts by placing a sensitized person constantly under the strain of asking himself, What is wrong with me? Why am I like this? The more he struggles to be the person he was, the more exasperation, the more tension, and consequently the more stress he adds. His failure to find a way out of this maze makes him feel incapable of coping with any future course his illness might take, and he vaguely sees himself being “taken away somewhere.”
While he feels in his bewilderment that he cannot direct his thoughts and actions adequately, he stands especially vulnerable to, and defenseless before, fear, which can overwhelm him before he has time to reason with it. It is the stress of bewilderment and fear continually being added to the stress of the original sensitization that keeps this sensitization alive and keeps its symptoms so severe. The sensitized person puts himself in a cycle of fear-adrenaline-fear. In other words, his fear of the state he is in produces the adrenaline and other stress hormones, which continue to excite his nerves to produce the very symptoms he fears. The fear-adrenaline-fear cycle is also called an anxiety state.
So many of the people who have come to me for help have had no particular problem or no cause in their subconscious either creating their illnesses or keeping them ill. Their main difficulties were finding the way to recovery and trying to meet responsibilities that because of illness seemed beyond them. They had been tricked into illness by those three bogeys, sensitization, bewilderment, and fear.
THE HABIT OF FEAR
In my opinion, too much time is spent and too much suffering is caused today by unnecessary searching for deep-seated causes of nervous illness when so often none exist. It is not enough to be told that such and such happened when one was young and that this is why one is nervous now. Whatever may have originally caused the illness—and in my experience it is by no means as often a childhood cause as is commonly believed—present sensitization remains. The habit of fear is the important thing now. This must be cured.
A woman from America wrote:
I saw a doctor four years ago, but out of sheer frustration, I quit. He did nothing but continually rehash the past. All I seemed to hear was that my mother left me to the maids and my father didn’t love me either. I have been told over and over again that lack of love caused my acute phobias, but never how to handle the fears themselves, especially fear of leaving home alone. I have repeatedly asked for help to deal with today, with the acute and constant fears and awful physical feelings I have. It seems all I’ve been given to live with is “but if” and “if only.”
This is not an isolated cry. It comes from many. Until the importance of straightforward sensitization is recognized as a possible cause of nervous illness, our present rate of cure will not improve as much as it otherwise would. I stress again that so much nervous illness has no deep-seated cause and is no more than severe sensitization—perhaps accidentally acquired—kept alive by bewilderment and fear.
The nervously ill person is forever questioning not only himself but also others. Too often the answers are so unsatisfactory that he loses hope of ever finding the explanation he craves, especially if he has been ill for long. Should you be suffering like this, you need a full explanation of what is happening to you. You also need a program for recovery, and that is what I offer in this book.
Fear of Leaving the Safety of Home (Agoraphobia)
“Agoraphobia” literally means “fear of the marketplace,” an abnormal fear of being in open or public places. In medical practice it refers to fear of leaving the safety of home either alone or in company. It is a much more crippling fear than claustrophobia—fear of enclosed places.
Until recently few people had heard of agoraphobia; even some doctors did not know the term. Four years ago, I accompanied a patient to see an ophthalmic surgeon of many years’ experience. I explained to him that the patient suffered with agoraphobia and mentioned the possible temporary effect of the tension on her vision. He listened politely, but when we were leaving, said, “I don’t believe in this illness you call agoraphobia. It doesn’t exist!” Since then there has been much publicity in England about the housebound housewife (suffering from agoraphobia) in newspapers and magazines and on radio and television; I doubt if that surgeon would say the same today.
It is possible this particular phase of nervous illness received so little attention in the past because an agoraphobic person often feels too self-conscious about his fears to discuss them even with a doctor. It is not easy for a woman to confess, especially to a man who she thinks may be unbelieving (as was that surgeon), that she is afraid to go to the supermarket alone and must either take a child with her for protection or send the child to do the shopping. It is just as difficult for a man to explain that he prefers to stay in a subordinate position at work because he cannot face taking a higher position that would mean traveling from city to city when he finds it so difficult to leave his own town.
This fear is not only difficult to explain to others but also difficult for the sufferers to understand themselves. Most of them used not to be like this, and they look back now in amazement at how freely they could once travel. This is why they think their illness is peculiar, something to be ashamed of, and why they are so surprised when they learn that many sensible, even notable, people suffer just as they do. After I have spoken about agoraphobia on radio or television, the studio switchboard is frequently jammed with incoming calls from people who have heard themselves and their fears described for the first time. Acknowledgment that the origin of their illness could be simple, the detailed description of how they feel, and especially recognition of the importance of their fear of fear are the reassurance they had been wanting for so long and had despaired of finding.
THE SAFETY ZONE
The sufferer from agoraphobia does not really think some particular place holds a special danger for him and that something there will harm him. He is afraid of how he will react when in a certain situation. He has become so sensitively aware of what happens within himself at the slightest stress—of how he panics, feels weak and giddy, and so on—that he lives in fear that these feelings will arise in places where he thinks he will be unable to cope wit...
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Book Description TBS The Book Service Ltd, 1972. Hardcover. Condition: New. Brand New!. Seller Inventory # VIB0207954399
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Book Description TBS The Book Service Ltd, 1972. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0207954399
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