Know Your Panic

Know Your Panic

Understanding how to control the way you lose it

By Nancy Maes

When Richard Harper’s* oldest daughter flew off to college with her mother for her freshman year in the fall of 2013, he was left to make the nine-hour drive to campus to deliver her belongings. On the road, he could feel the stress building. The muscles in his neck and shoulders grew tighter and tighter, and he couldn’t stop tapping his fingers. The tension was more than in his muscles, however. Despite the close relationship he and his daughter shared, his mind raced with irrational thoughts that their close relationship would change forever—that without her living in the house, they would hardly ever, or never, interact with each other. At age 49, with a career at an investment bank, Harper was having a panic attack.

The symptoms didn’t let up. “I was a mess [throughout] the fall,” he recalls. “I avoided driving on the highway because the panic I felt when I was driving down to my daughter’s college was stuck in my memory and kept coming back. I’ve got a recovery background, and I’ve been sober for 23 years, so I knew there wasn’t anything wrong physically but that it was mental.”

Harper’s physician suggested he attend classes for people suffering from panic attacks given by Bethany Price, PhD, a clinical psychologist with NorthShore University HealthSystem.

“The physiological arousal that happens during a panic attack would be quite normal if you were in a situation that was truly life threatening,” Price says. “But in a panic attack, people overreact to a trigger that is not dangerous, and it sets off a false alarm, and that higher anxiety causes neurochemical changes that can be scary.”

The many symptoms of a panic attack include nausea, abdominal cramping, dizziness, shortness of breath, rapid heart rate and chest pains. The physical changes are so frightening that people experiencing them sometimes go to the emergency room because they think they are dying. People who have panic attacks may live in constant fear of having another one.

“They tend to anticipate it happening again, so they then may tend to avoid the situation that triggered it,” Price says.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about six million American adults suffer from panic disorder each year. Although statistics show that more women than men experience the attacks, Price points out that these are diagnosed cases and that women are more likely than men to come forward and seek treatment. She says, however, that she personally treats about as many men as women with panic attacks.

During the six classes that meet once a week, Price discusses the fearful thoughts that bring on panic attacks and the physiological symptoms they create. She teaches relaxation and coping strategies to “outsmart the false-alarm system” and ways to restructure thinking so that it is more realistic. At the end of the session, patients are individually armed with strategies to control their fears so they can confront their triggers.

“Every time they go into that feared event and feel a panic attack coming on, they can bring it down on their own, and eventually it will just stop,” Price says.

Price points out that the classes are not group-therapy sessions, although patients are free to discuss their personal experiences. Nevertheless Harper says, “I want to emphasize the dynamic of sharing. It was an enormous benefit to unlocking the paranoia about these attacks to realize that there are a lot of normal people [who] go through this.”

Now, just over a year since the first attack, Harper is driving on the highway again. “I realized I had to battle the problem head-on,” he says. “Deep breathing really helps—it helps to slow down and think to myself that I have the ability to pull over at an exit and sit there and collect my thoughts and not get caught up in the momentum of the stress and anxiety.”

“I thought my relationship with my daughter was completely shut off, but it wasn’t. In fact, we’re probably closer than we’ve ever been before.”

*Name changed at the request of the source.

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Originally published in the Winter/Spring 2015 print edition