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In her own words: living with panic disorder

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Helen* was diagnosed eight years ago with panic anxiety disorder. After many doctor visits trying to find what was wrong, she was able to align her symptoms with a description of panic disorder in her local paper. She shared her discovery with her specialist, who referred her to a psychologist. The psychologist confirmed her diagnosis, and enrolled her in a 17-session therapy program that taught Helen how to manage her panic disorder. She has returned to her normal lifestyle and is able to control her occasional anxious moments with medication.

What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?

I couldn't sleep. I was just wired and hyper all the time. I would go all night without any sleep. I had lost my appetite. I couldn't eat. I was constantly worrying about something, always fearful that something was going to happen. I didn’t want to go to work. I didn’t even want to leave the house. Sometimes I would have pain in my chest, sweating, and shaking. I also had an ache in my back. Those were probably the biggest symptoms.

What was the diagnosis experience like?

Well, I went to my family doctor and he thought it was a blood disease, because of the aches in my back. I had a few ultrasounds, but the doctor found nothing. So finally, he sent me to a hematologist and he took all kinds of tests, but couldn't find a thing wrong with me either. I had several kinds of tests.

One day, I was reading an article in the newspaper about mental disorders and one of them was about panic and anxiety. They had a list of ten items, and all ten were symptoms I had. So I told my specialist that I thought that that is what is wrong with me. He looked at me kind of funny, but recommended that I have an evaluation done at a local mental facility. I made an appointment with a psychologist at this facility and he talked with me for quite a while. I told him some of the things I was experiencing. I told him about a recent episode where my husband and I were in a restaurant and I just felt closed in and we had to get out of there. I couldn't handle it anymore. The psychologist said, “You were having a panic attack.”

What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?

I was so relieved, because I thought I was going crazy. I thought there was something physically wrong with me. It was just a great relief! I'm just thankful that it is something that can be controlled.

How is panic disorder treated?

Right after the diagnosis they scheduled me for a series of 17 sessions with a group of people who were having the same problems. My husband went with me because I wanted him to know about what was happening when I had a panic attack. At first, everyone was really quiet, but after a few sessions, we began laughing together and really becoming friends. The psychologist would give us information, we would share our experiences, we had a book to read, and homework to do after each session. They gave us questions to answer and we did self- evaluations. The therapists always made us feel very comfortable.

In addition to the sessions, the doctor put me on medication to help me sleep at night. He put me on Zanax. It helped to relax me so I could sleep. It wasn't a medication that was addictive, which I was happy about. I was on it for a while, until I could get back into a normal sleeping pattern, then I went off of it gradually. Now I take it only when I need it, which is no more than once or twice a year. I just take it when I'm feeling really anxious about something. It works within about 20 minutes. Another thing they did is give us a relaxation tape. And I listen to that often. I would listen to it when I went to bed at night, in the morning before I would go to work, and when I came home from work. My husband would also listen to it with me.

I haven't had to go back for any therapy since my 17- week sessions, eight years ago. I feel like I know how to control it on my own. Sometimes, if I go out for a walk it helps me relax.

Did you have to make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to having a panic disorder?

Not really. I just tried to get back into my normal routine before I got sick. I just wanted to continue with my normal lifestyle. The only change is that I did the relaxation tapes often and I went places; I started going on vacations again. I continued with my work.

The only dietary change is that they wanted to me to eat six meals a day to gain back the weight I lost when I was having my panic attacks. I had lost quite a bit of weight.

Did you seek any type of emotional support?

My husband and kids were very supportive. We also had friends that were real understanding. My brother-in-law was a doctor and he was very supportive.

Does having a panic disorder have an impact on your family?

It was just my husband and I living at home at the time, so it mostly affected my husband. My family was very concerned about me when we were trying to find out what was wrong. Once I was diagnosed, they just encouraged me to get back to my normal lifestyle.

What advice would you give to anyone living with a panic disorder?

Get professional help right away. Don't be afraid to admit you have a problem. It can also be genetic, so it helps to have an understanding of your background. I remember my mother always taking “nerve pills.” She had some of the same symptoms I have. You have to accept it, because it will be with you for the rest of your life. However, it's something that can be controlled.

*Not her real name

Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.