Panic Disorder: Questions and Answers
These are questions about panic disorder -- asked, written, or e-mailed to us. Some details may have been changed to insure privacy.
Q: I have spent the last nine years in hospitals, emergency rooms, and in my physician's office, and after all this time I was told my issues were "all in my "head" or that it might be my hyperactive imagination. After doing a lot of reading, I realized I had panic disorder. I was surprised and shocked because the symptoms that I read about fit mine almost exactly! There WERE other people in the world who had the same fears and worries I had. I still worry over my physical symptoms, and even when I know they aren't really true: I still feel that they are. Am I normal and do other panic people feel this way?
A: Yes, you are perfectly normal, and yes, most people with panic have the same or similar worries about their physical health. In the past, medical personnel have not been aware enough to tell people who check out fine physically that they might be suffering from panic attacks. This situation appears to be changing slowly. Obtaining a proper diagnosis is the first step in overcoming panic. The second step is to get into an active cognitive-behavioral program that challenges those strong beliefs and feelings that are inaccurate (they are lies). As you begin to truly see and believe that they are lies, panic loosens its grip and has to set you free. You are in control. It has no choice.
Q: I have a cousin with panic attacks and she is always concerned about her rapid heartbeat and passing out. I believe I suffer from panic, too, but it's not my heart or passing out that bother me. It's everything -- and it keeps on changing. Especially if I read something in a book or see something on TV. I think I have whatever I see. It's a very strong, scary feeling and I can't stop thinking about it. My thoughts are racy and out of control. I am sure that I have cancer or AIDS. I can't talk to anyone about this because I've been called a hypochondriac before. Does this sound like panic to you or am I really a hypochondriac?
A: This is panic. The majority of people with panic experience symptom-shifting during the course of treatment. When you realize that the symptom-shifting is an intrinsic part of the panic feeling and learn that the shifting is under your control, your beliefs about panic will alter, and you will be on the road to recovery.
Q: First, I spent thousand of dollars on emergency rooms and doctor's visits. Now I'm spending thousands more on psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists. I'm not any better off than I was before. My attacks are not as frequent, but the anxiety is the same and possibly is getting worse. What can I do?
A: We cannot stress too strongly the point of checking your psychologist/psychiatrist out first. Do they specialize in treating panic? And by this I mean, do the vast majority of people treated have an anxiety disorder or is the therapist just seeing everyone who walks in the door?
The understanding and knowledge concerning anxiety disorders is light years behind the other mental health care problems. My recommendation would be to see a professional who has had an anxiety disorder themselves and then gone into practice. There is no way to explain panic to a person who has never experienced panic. A person can read all the books in the world and not truly understand what it's like to have panic attacks. Also, seek help from clinics, hospital anxiety centers, or university-based anxiety clinics, where they will understand what you are talking about. If therapists know less about panic than you do, how will they ever be able to help you?
Q: From reading your literature, I think I have symptoms of panic, social phobia, and generalized anxiety. Is this possible, and if it is, what does this mean in terms of getting better?
A: Yes, it's unlikely, but possible. The anxiety disorders usually tend to "bleed over" in to each other to some degree. It is likely you meet the diagnostic criteria for one anxiety disorder, and just have a few symptoms of the others. However, it is also usually true that the severity of each condition might be slightly blunted. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, when performed in a gentle, step-by-step manner, works for all the anxiety disorders, and although you may have extra areas to work in, as long as you are persistent and motivated in getting better, you will make substantial progress in overcoming your anxiety.