The Ultimate Nightmare

Wendy Porter-Ouellet By Wendy Porter-Ouellet, 24th May 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Health>Mind & Spirit>Phobias

This article explains the fear, anxiety, depression and hopelessness of Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia. It also offers hope for those who currently suffer from this nightmare.

The Beginning

It is terrifying, it is real, and it is known as a panic attack. Out of no where it strikes, exploding within your mind, overwhelming you with the most intense fear you've ever experienced. Suddenly, you can't breathe, your heart is racing like cars at the Indie 500, you feel like vomiting and you desperately need to escape from the hell you've entered into. Then you start wondering what's wrong. Am I having a heart attack? A stroke? Is this the end? It is without a doubt one of the most traumatizing events a human being can ever experience. I know this first-hand, having lived through this nightmare for eleven long and painful years.

My first panic attack hit me in 1986 as I was driving to my job at an elementary school twenty miles from my home. One minute I was cruising along, radio tuned into an oldies rock and roll station, my mind occupied by the myriad list of chores I had to do that day, and the next minute, from out of the blue, I was completely overwhelmed with fear and panic. At that point there was only one thought accelerating through my head, to turn the car around and drive home as quickly as possible. And I did precisely that. I escaped. By the time I arrived home I was soaked in sweat and drowning in tears, wondering what had just happened to me.

Learning Process

As I would learn later on, my reaction that day was fairly typical, especially during the initial attacks. Because it is such a foreign feeling, with a plethora of symptoms common to other illnesses such as heart disease, thyroid problems and breathing disorders, many sufferers find themselves at hospital emergency departments, thinking they are seriously ill. It was after my second attack which occurred the day after the first one, mirroring it in every detail, that I found myself at the local hospital. Driving myself there, I arrived in tears, shaking and somewhat embarrassed, led into a cubicle immediately by a nurse who waited with me until the doctor arrived. That panic attack had lasted for approximately ten minutes, but the after-effects, primarily the thought of having another crippling attack, hung on fiercely. According the the Canadian Mental Health Association, a typical panic attack can last up to ten minutes, however, they can be shorter in duration, from one to five minutes. More severe episodes can wax and wane every few minutes for up to two hours, culminating in physical exhaustion and sleep. It completely drains you, mentally, physically and emotionall.

More To Learn

That first trip to the ER was one of many, and it was then that I was told what I'd experienced was quite likely a panic attack, nothing serious according to the doctor I saw that day, just extremely uncomfortable and definitely worth discussing further with my family doctor. By the time I got an appointment with my doctor it was one week after my first attack and during that time I was having full-blown panic attacks several times a day, every day. The mere thought of an attack was constantly on my mind, it consumed me, left me fearful of things I'd never been afraid of before. My doctor examined me from head to toe during that initial appointment, asked me a multitude of questions, then after some thought informed me that I was, in his opinion, suffering from panic disorder, which he described as being one of several types of anxiety disorders. I had never heard of this before but was about to find out more than I ever wanted to.

Panic Disorder is found twice as often in women as in men, with the onset age somewhere in the late teens to early twenties, although children have been known to have it. It is characterized by sudden, repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by a variety of symptoms such as racing, pounding heart, difficulty breathing, overwhelming terror, trembling, sweating, chest pains, choking, dizziness, nausea, abdominal discomfort, hot flashes or chills, tingling sensations, a fear of losing control or going crazy,hyperventilation and a sense of things being unreal or depersonalized. Believe it or not, I had experienced every one of these symptoms at one time or another. After admitting to my doctor that I was so frightened of having another attack that I could no longer drive anywhere beyond a few blocks from my house, including to work, he explained that I probably also had agoraphobia. This occurs when a person avoids situations or places they feel they couldn't escape from or obtain help for should a panic attack arise. That was me, a 28 year old woman suffering from panic disorder with agoraphobia, a condition I now shared with roughly two million other Canadians. But why? What had caused it?

What Causes Panic Disorder?

Although the cause of panic disorder is not known for sure, studies have shown that life stresses such as divorce, loss of a loved one, or having a child could play a significant part. Also common is sufferers is substance abuse, anxiety in childhood, over-protective parents, previous bouts of depression and perfectionist tendencies. Panic disorder has been found to run in families which could mean that inheritance genes play a strong role in who is predisposed to getting it. In my case, no family member that I am aware of showed signs of it but there is no doubt that life stresses played a significant role for me. I was a young, single mother, working full-time, struggling with finances, helping to care for two elderly parents, and had just ended a disastrous relationship. Basically I had my answer as to why I ended up with panic disorder with agoraphobia.

Getting Help

The next step and stop for me was medications and a therapist's office, on the strong recommendation of my doctor. People with panic disorder can often be treated successfully with a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and medications such as anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. I was prescribed a benzodiazepine called Ativan, to be used either as a preventative before I needed to travel any distance from my home, or at the onset of an attack. This medication proved to be very effective for me, even the knowledge of having it in my possession seemed to calm my fear-addled brain. In addition to the Ativan, I was also prescribed an anti-depressant called Doxepin, which in the beginning worked quite well but a couple of years into my disorder this drug ceased to be helpful. From that point on I tried several different anti-depressants, with varying degrees of success and often accompanied by some unpleasant side effects. Patients need to work with their physicians to find the right medication for them and sometimes many are tried before the right one is found. I was willing to try just about anything if I thought there was a chance it would end my panic attacks, but it was many years before I would find the perfect anti-depressant for me, and up until then I tried everything my doctor prescribed.

Coupled with the medications came a weekly session at a local mental health clinic, basically for talk therapy. While I developed a good rapport with my therapist and benefited to a certain degree from the relaxation techniques I was taught, it wasn't working as well as I'd hoped as I was still having regular panic attacks and still could not travel far from home. It took several years before I came to the conclusion that if I ever wanted to have a better quality of life, I needed to make some big changes. After reading a newspaper article on "cognitive behavioural therapy", written by a former panic disorder sufferer, I quizzed my doctor to find out more about it. It was explained to me that this therapy uses techniques based upon the concept that intentional exposure to the symptoms will help to decrease the sufferer's fear of panic attacks. It is found to be significantly superior to other treatments such as relaxation alone or education, two of which I'd had for several years. I was fortunate to locate a female therapist in my area and began working with her twice a week, one day in her office and another day driving together in my car. The anticipatory anxiety was horrible, and in the beginning I would dream up excuses why I couldn't do the driving part of my therapy, but then quickly came to realize that the only one that hurt was me. Despite the extreme fear and anxiety I felt, I plunged in and never missed another driving session. I had to set goals for each week, so I began with trying to travel one mile from home. Looking back now it doesn't seem like such a big deal, but at the time it felt as though I was being asked to travel to the moon! There was another change for me after I started working with this therapist, a new drug called Paxil, an anti-depressant, and it was to be my saviour. My wonder drug. After years of trying so many different anti-depressants, with none being very successful, I finally had the perfect one for me. Gradually, with a new-found determination and blossoming hope, I glimpsed light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel, one I'd existed in for years.

At Last

Much of the success of treatment depends on the sufferer's willingness to follow the treatment plan diligently and to be patient as it isn't a quick fix. Perhaps one reason that my panic disorder with agoraphobia lasted eleven years was that I wasn't receiving the right type of therapy in the beginning, and then it took a while before I worked the program to the best of my ability. Once I did, along with the proper medications, my life changed. Travelling away from home grew easier in time, and the props I used seemed to alleviate at least some of my anxiety. For a long time I carried my medication with me in case I needed it, and sometimes I did need it, but eventually I was able to stop taking it with me. Making sure I always had a bottle of water with me was another prop I employed as sipping it seemed to help my anxiety too.

Driving alone was by far the biggest hurdle for me to tackle as having someone beside me bolstered my courage. In the back of my mind I knew that if I was to have an attack, that person would be there to help me through it. Eventually I approached this hurdle in the same way as when I had someone with me, in small increments, baby steps. Finally there came a time when I could drive by myself, not great distances at first, but it was certainly a great victory for me. Now I can drive by myself, any distance I choose and without any crutches, a freedom I believed I would never know again.

For those who suffer with panic disorder with or without agoraphobia, I feel your pain, I have been where you are, but I want you to know that there is help available, probably much more than when I was a sufferer. You really don't have to suffer in silence, or try to handle it on your own, but you do need to take that first step...tell someone, make an appointment with your family doctor. Don't wait, do it today so you can be on the road to recovery and to reclaiming your life. It will be the best gift you may ever give yourself. I will be praying for you, God bless.


Agoraphobia, Anxiety Fear And Panic, Anxiety Fear Of Losing Control, Anxiety Symptoms, Panic Attacks, Phobias

Meet the author

author avatar Wendy Porter-Ouellet
Introducing, Wendy Ouellet, a young-at-heart woman who is a wife, a mother of four incredible kids, a former education assistant and now a stay-at-home writer. Many interests, skills and expertise.

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author avatar Angeles Mizilla
26th May 2013 (#)

Thank you for sharing your struggles. Such beautifully eloquent writing. I too have suffered from anxiety and agoraphobia. Mine stemmed from a deep depression early in my adult years. I have overcome this, but not many do. Many well wishes to you in your struggles!

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author avatar Wendy Porter-Ouellet
26th May 2013 (#)

Thank you so much Angeles, I really appreciate all your comments. My struggles also began in my early teen years with depression, but the anxiety and agoraphobia did not manifest until I was older. I still have issues with the anxiety every so often but nothing compared to that turbulent time in my life. Thanks again.

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