We were in the car, crossing a Bay Area bridge, when my friend began to complain of nausea. She felt as though she couldn’t breathe, and rolled down her window for some fresh air. When that didn’t give her any relief, she put her head on her lap and said she was going to be sick. She asked me for her pillow from the back seat. She was cold. Breathing heavily, she asked me to pull over – an impossibility on the bridge. She just kept repeating, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going crazy.’ As soon as we reached terra firma, I pulled into the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant. She jumped out of the car and got down on her hands and knees, her forehead on the oily pavement, choking on sobs and breaths too big for her shaking body.
It wasn’t until I began interviewing women with anxiety disorders that I was able to understand what had happened to my friend that evening in the car: I had been witness to a full-blown panic attack.
Eighteen years ago, when Kaati was in her 30s, she had what was then called ‘a nervous breakdown.’ She began experiencing stress at an extreme level. She lived on an island and was terrified to go over the bridge to the mainland.
Gradually, her fears grew to the point that they rendered her housebound. She was increasingly unable to function
normally and became dependent on her father. Her biggest fear was that she was going crazy. She tried many forms of bodywork including aura cleansing, shiatsu massage, and chakra alignment to get some relief from her condition, but nothing changed. Finally, she went to a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with agoraphobia, which she described to me as ‘fear of fear, not ‘fear of the marketplace.’’ She began taking psychotropic drugs for people who hear voices and said she felt as though she had been poisoned, had chronic diarrhea, and lost a lot of weight. Her treatment was hardly a remedy.
According to Mental Health America, the country’s leading nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting mental health, preventing mental disorders and overcoming mental illness through advocacy, education, research and service, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States today. More than 19 million people are affected each year, three quarters of them women. Most people who suffer from severe anxiety conditions are often described as highly sensitive, intelligent people who were raised to be perfectionists.
Anxiety is a normal reaction to stressful situations such as deadlines or examinations, but when it interferes with everyday situations and keeps a person from living a productive life, it becomes a disabling disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is defined as chronic exaggerated worry and tension and an anticipation of disaster in response to everyday problems. Other anxiety disorders are post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobias, and avoidance behavior, or agoraphobia.
‘Panic attacks are sudden surges of overwhelming fear that come without warning and without obvious reason,’ says anxietypanic.com. Suzanne, 28, described how she experiences a panic attack: ‘First I feel kind of out-of-it. Things look eerie, not right. Then I get dizzy. My heart starts to race and I have trouble breathing. I get nauseated. I get afraid. It’s nothing specific…the feeling of someone putting a gun to your head. But no one is there. It escalates.’
Conflict and anger trigger Suzanne’s panic attacks, as does pre-menstrual syndrome, but they also come on unexpectedly. She usually has them in the morning, the evening, or right before the seasons change. She has had them since she was 15 years old. Like so many others with panic attacks, Suzanne attempted to cope with her fears by turning to alcohol and drugs for relief; but they only exacerbated the attacks. She finally got help through Keiser Hospital support groups and relaxation management classes where she learned breathing techniques and other ways to calm herself during an attack. She tells herself that what she is experiencing isn’t real. She prays and repeats a mantra, ‘Let Go. Trust God,’ which helps sometimes. She gets up to do something. She tells someone she is having a panic attack so that she doesn’t feel like she’s hiding something, ‘because I feel like I’m going crazy.’ She does find some comfort in the knowledge that if someone thinks they’re going crazy they’re probably not.
Kaati wanted to share her experience of living with anxiety disorders and panic attacks to help others who suffer with this extremely prevalent condition and to let them know that there are solutions. She is frustrated that there aren’t more workshops and resources available, but encourages people to get help for themselves. ‘There is no stigma,’ she said. Today, Kaati still has some anxiety, but she knows how to manage it. She is respondin appropriately to life decisions and ‘life is good,’ she said.
Kaati connected me with Reno psychotherapist, Dr. Charles (Chuck) Smith Ph.D., who has helped her to improve the quality of her life.
‘Seventy-five percent of physical disorders are stress-related,’ said Smith, who refers to anxiety disorder as ‘hurry sickness.’
Smith believes every person should sit and meditate to counteract the rising frenzy in our lives. ‘Life is full of chaos. Accept it and relax. Worrying doesn’t stop the uncontrollability of things,’ he said. ‘We should breathe to calm ourselves ask, ‘On a scale of one to ten how important is it? Do I have to do this? For whom am I doing this? Why?’ And we should remind ourselves that we don’t have to please everybody.’
Our culture’s striving for material success has thrown us off balance, he said. He recommends developing a spiritual practice and considering a life coach to help in reevaluating our values and beliefs. ‘New, bigger, better’ won’t make life better. We need to develop a deeper, rich interior life,’ Smith said.
Changing our thinking is vital to our mental health, and Smith advises counteracting our negative thoughts with affirmations and surrounding ourselves with positive people. He also stresses the importance of finding a good counselor or psychotherapist to identify one’s stressors and hot buttons, and if needed, to help with medication.
‘Slow Down. Be growthful. Exercise. Sleep. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Retreat into the natural world,’ he said.
A person who lives with anxiety is a person who lives imprisoned by fear. Don’t surrender to it or try to run from it. Face it. Fight it. Seek out support, and remember that you are not alone.
• National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Truckee/Lake Tahoe is a support group for those with, or families of those with, a diagnosis of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizo effective disorder, anxiety disorder, OCD, PTSD, other mental and emotional problems, or with behaviors that are of concern. They meet on the third Thursday of the month in the main lobby conference room at Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee. 530-277-1592.
• The Anxiety Treatment Center, Inc. is located in Sacramento, California and specializes in treating anxiety and related disorders. anxietytreatmentexperts.com, 916-366-0647.
• The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) promotes welfare of people with phobias and related anxiety disorders. It is an organization for consumers, health care professionals and other concerned individuals. They publish a national membership directory, a self-help group directory, the ADAA Reporter and a newsletter and offer development guidelines to those interested in starting a group. adaa.org, 888-442-2022. anxietypanic.com, renown.org