The fear that paralyzes
Panic attacks affect millions, but sufferers can feel hopelessly alone
- 2.7 percent of U.S. adults have a panic disorder. Of those, 44.8 percent are considered severe.
- Panic disorder can occur at any time in a person's life, but it is more prevalent in early adulthood and mid-teens. People ages 25-44 are most at risk for developing a panic disorder.
- Symptoms of a panic attack usually begin abruptly and include rapid heartbeat, chest sensations, shortness of breath, dizziness, tingling and severe anxiety.
- Approximately 51.9 percent of those who suffer from panic attack disorders are receiving treatment.
- Average age of onset is 24.
Sources: National Institute of Mental Health, Medicinenet.com, Panichub.com
It has been almost four years.
Four years since I was driving home with my then 4-year-old son oblivious in the back seat, and I struggled to keep my car from crashing while suffering a sudden and monumental panic attack. I was going 70 mph, fighting back tears and trying to swallow the dread lodged in my throat as my heart pounded in my chest and my sweaty hands slid on the steering wheel.
I knew I owed it to my son to try to get us home safely, but as my vision began to blur and my heart rate accelerated, I was convinced I was going to drop dead and we would end up on the evening news.
To this day, I cannot recall how we made it home alive, but it would be the last time I would drive on the freeway for a long time.
In the past several years, "panic attack" has become the phrase du jour to describe anything from a feeling of frustration over a lost Little League game to the realization that your merlot is really a cabernet and your wine tasting party is in jeopardy. If you're posting that you're having a panic attack on Facebook, you're most likely not having one.
The panic attacks that I experience, along with roughly 2.7 percent of the U.S adult population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, are ones that infiltrate the body and send senses into hyper drive. My chest tightens, my mouth is dry and my body often heats up, causing me to sweat profusely. My breath is short and erratic.
It's easy to see why panic attacks aren't conducive to a healthy social life or a promotion. I've been forced to bail on outings with friends so many times, they eventually stopped calling. I've missed potential career-changing meetings because I was sidelined by a panic attack.
What's worse is that every time I have one, it feels like the first time. Every time I feel a panic attack, it seems like the last time I may feel anything at all.
Experts disagree on the exact nature of what causes panic attacks; genetic and environmental triggers are known factors, but some symptoms come on rapidly without an identifiable stressor.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM IV) states, "The individual may have had periods of high anxiety in the past, or may have been involved in a recent stressful situation. The underlying causes, however, are typically subtle."
So how do you treat something of which you don't know the cause?
Panic disorder and its highly disruptive and frightening symptoms are treatable. According to an article by doctors Peter Ham, David B. Waters and Norman Oliver from the University of Virginia School of Medicine, "Antidepressant medications successfully reduce the severity of panic symptoms and eliminate panic attacks."
The article, which was published in the American Family Physician Journal, continues, "Strong evidence supports the effectiveness of cognitive behavior therapy in treating panic disorder, and proper diagnoses and treatment with medications and/or skilled therapy may restore a better quality of life."
However, if left untreated, "symptoms can worsen and agoraphobia can develop," states the DSM IV. "In these cases, the individual has developed such an intense fear that leaving the safety of home feels impossible."
This can have a devastating effect on patients' lives, affecting their ability to keep a job, go to school, have meaningful relationships and experience the world in which they live.
Seeking treatment sooner rather than later can significantly reduce the number of panic attacks one might experience.
My threshold has lowered. Sometimes it's day by day, or if things are going well, week by week. I wake each morning hopeful that my body and mind will work together in peaceful harmony, but more often than not, I feel the uneasiness building in the pit of my stomach and with a disappointment I am all too familiar with, I have to pick up the phone and cancel my plans.
I know they say there are millions of us out there suffering the same anxious fate, but at times like these, I feel so alone.
My therapist, a bohemian spirit who is determined to get me back on the freeway again, forces me to sit through the panic as it rises up in my throat and threatens to suffocate me. She is gentle and soothing as I squirm on the couch, eyeing the nearest exit, my hands gripping a decorative pillow as I will myself to stay seated. This type of cognitive therapy is painful, and I hate every second of it.
But if I am to reclaim my life — if I am to stand a chance of once again feeling the wind whip through my hair as I round the bend and come to a standstill in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Southern California freeways — I have no choice but to sit here and let the fear take over, if only long enough to show it who is really boss.