Panic Disorder

"How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!" . . .Thomas Jefferson, 1825

* * *Vanessa had just begun her Freshman year at college. Her parents had driven her to the University and helped her settle in. She and her roommate hit it off immediately and she was looking forward to classes and the college experience. Within a month she began to experience heart pounding, difficulty breathing, dizziness and nausea. She made several trips to the emergency room of the local hospital where she was told that nothing was wrong.

* * *Lorraine was shopping with a friend at the supermarket when she suddenly felt as though she couldn’t catch her breath, felt her hands tingling and pain in her chest, and thought she was going to die. Her friend called 911 and the paramedics came within ten minutes. They determined that there was nothing physically wrong and Lorraine felt back to normal within forty-five minutes. She never went shopping again without a friend along because of her fear that she would experience another attack.

* * *Victor had just gotten the promotion he had been working for but at his first department meeting he began to feel shaky, his heart was pounding and waves of nausea washed over him. He thought he was getting the flu. Two days later, driving over a bridge on his way to work, he began to feel panicky and he was fearful of losing control of the car. Over the next several weeks these feelings began to increase in both frequency and intensity. Victor’s doctor assured him it was nothing physical, that he was just nervous about his new position. The attacks continued, Victor’s fear of having an attack increased, interfering with his ability to work, and he was forced to take a leave of absence.

* * *Vanessa, Lorraine, and Victor were actually experiencing Panic Disorder. It is conservatively estimated that between three and four million Americans suffer from this disorder. In Panic Disorder, panic — and the physical symptoms that accompany it — seem to come out of nowhere with no apparent cause or reason. Patients describe the feeling as the most terrifying and overwhelming experience they have ever had — as if they are choking, dying, or going crazy. Patients frequently make numerous trips to hospital emergency rooms only to be told that nothing is wrong.

Unfortunately, many physicians are not trained to recognize Panic Disorder and either fail to diagnose it or misdiagnose it as other diseases which have similar symptoms. Some patients with Panic Disorder develop Agoraphobia, Greek for "fear of the marketplace". The name is derived from the progressive avoidance of places in which the sufferer has experienced an attack, or fear of an attack. Some people eventually are unable to leave their homes. These people are frequently required to go onto the disability rolls, yet another cost of this disorder.

Anyone can develop Panic Disorder — no ethnic, religious, economic, or gender group is exempt. The attacks usually occur with regularity beginning in early to middle adulthood, but have also been observed in children.

Vanessa, Lorraine, and Victor all achieved significant relief and/or disappearance of symptoms within 3-6 months through cognitive-behavioral therapy with a mental health professional trained in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Lorraine took medication during the first two months of her therapy. At 6-month follow-up, all were continuing to do well without medication.

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