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Reader's Digest | Overcoming Panic Attacks

Originally published in Reader's Digest Canada on March 25, 2019 by Bonnie Munday

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It’s six o’clock on a September evening in 2001, and I’m driving our minivan on a Toronto highway, heading to dinner at my parents’ house. My husband is in Bermuda, where he has landed a two-year contract; he’s looking for an apartment so I can join him. Now it’s just me and my little black poodle, making the half-hour drive I’ve made hundreds of times.

The news is on the radio—top story, the recent 9/11 terrorist attack. It seems I can’t get away from the shocking stories and images. As I approach a bridge, my heart suddenly starts beating rapidly. Then my legs turn to jelly.

You’re going to drive off the bridge, a voice in my head warns. Now my arms are numb. You’re about to lose control and die. I’m terrified. My hands grip the wheel; I just want to make it over the bridge and to an exit. I do; then I pull into a parking lot and start to cry. What is happening to me?

I hadn’t reached my destination, but I rang the bell to exit and, in tears, walked home, where I felt safer. A few days later, I tried the bus again, and the same thing happened. The thing that had forced me to avoid highway driving was now forcing me to avoid public transit.

It was time to come clean. That evening, I told my husband what had been going on. He was sympathetic; I shouldn’t have kept it bottled up, because it felt good to let it out. But he was as mystified as I was. We searched online for “fear of highways” and “fear of public transportation” and got lots of hits, which is when we learned that the episodes were actually classic panic attacks.

“Humans are hardwired to survive,” explains Eilenna Denisoff, a clinical psychologist and director of CBT Associates in Toronto. “The fight-or-flight response allows us to run faster, jump higher, if we’re being chased. Physiologically, then, the brain’s reaction to the rapid heartbeat ‘danger signal’ is to move blood from the limbs to protect the core.” (This explains the feeling of limbs turning to jelly.) The person isn’t actually in danger, but the brain misreads the signs as indicating a need to flee.

Panic disorder can be treated with antidepressants long-term and with beta-blockers for immediate relief of symptoms. But experts recognize cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, as the best treatment. It resolves anxiety by changing the underlying beliefs that tell you the panicky feeling is itself dangerous.

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