Panic and Anxiety Disorders
Panic and Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety is a natural response in situations where a genuine threat is present. Without it our physiologies would be unable to rise to our defense. Anxiety disorders are a distortion of this natural response that appears when no threat is present. It may be so extreme that normal life cannot be maintained on any level.
Joan began getting panic attacks when she was in her forties. Her heart would beat in a way that led her to think that she was having a heart attack, her knees would grow weak and her palms would sweat. This could happen anywhere, at a supermarket, at work or even in the middle of the night while she was asleep.
The first attack sent her to her local doctor who dutifully examined her heart and found nothing unusual. Joan found this unnerving. She felt sure that what she had just suffered was a heart attack of sorts.
After the third attack occurred Joan began to feel unsafe in any situation. She felt utterly at the mercy of something beyond her control. She searched aspects of her environment to find reasons for her seemingly extreme and irrational response to it. She felt that if she could identify a cause she could avoid it and stop the occurrence.
Pretty soon Joan's world had shrunk to the four walls of her home and, even then, the attacks kept coming. Each time she felt she was about to die but every doctor she went to assured her that she was 100% healthy. She began to feel that she must be losing her mind.
Panic disorder is just one of many conditions that fall under the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) category of anxiety disorders. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, Generalized anxiety disorder, Social phobias and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder are some other conditions that include the debilitating symptoms of excessive and irrational fear and dread.
Symptoms vary for each anxiety disorder but all are serious medical illnesses that are a part of everyday life for over 19 million Americans.
What lies at the core of the disorder is the maladaptive application of the fight or flight response that is ordinarily an essential element of our survival mechanism. Without it we would be unable to muster the resources needed to avoid life-threatening situations. On a less dramatic scale we would be unable to stay up all night to study for an exam, step into the office for that dreaded first day of work or stop the car suddenly to avoid an accident.
Immediately following any of the above events it is common to feel adrenalin zipping through the system only to leave you subsequently drained and weak at the knees. People who suffer from anxiety disorders experience this inappropriate adrenalin rush followed by energy depletion on a regular basis. They are completely unable to prepare for it because it can happen anywhere in response to anything.
Joan's story of repeated unsuccessful attempts to gain medical assistance for her condition is not uncommon even in this day and age when medical practitioners are more knowledgeable about mental and psychological disorders than ever before.
One of the most unfortunate and unnecessary aspects of the suffering incurred by such conditions is the time lag between the first experience of it and a definitive diagnosis that can then lead to appropriate treatment. Feelings of desperation and intense isolation can make the situation almost unbearable. Support and treatment is imperative for a good prognosis. Left untreated extreme cases may lead patients their own lives believing that to be the only escape from a reality that has become unbearable.
Here are some pointers to help recognize the symptoms of some of the more common anxiety disorders:
Panic Disorder - Sudden, unpredictable attacks that may include palpitations, sweating, trembling, shaking, dizziness, breathlessness, nausea, fear of dying.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder - A more chronic experience of symptoms of anxiety associated with normal aspects of everyday life. Relentless, ongoing tension and worry associated with many physical symptoms like fatigue, muscle aches, tension headaches, breathlessness and sweating.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder - Anxious thoughts and rituals that seem to be outside of your control. Lady Macbeth is one of the most famous literary descriptions of the repetitive hand washing routine that would be considered a symptom of OCD today. Failure to enact rituals results in unbearable anxiety.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - Follows catastrophic events and involves the mind's attempts to somehow come to terms with the horror through reliving the events over and over in the imagination. This condition was first recognized with the return of war veterans who were unable to function in society as a result of their experiences.
Social Phobia (Social Anxiety Disorder) - This is distinct from ordinary shyness around people it is associated with an overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations. Symptoms include sweating, blushing, trembling and nausea.
Treatments for anxiety disorders tend to include a combination of different forms of therapy, most commonly behavioral-cognitive together with the moderate use of various medications. Undiagnosed sufferers of anxiety disorders may self medicate using drugs and alcohol to dull the extreme levels of sensitivity.