Dealing with Panic and Anxiety: A personal narrative.

By David Delaney, ARCVic (from October 2004 Newsletter)

Anxiety amongst sufferers can be debilitating even when faced with activities of daily living.  Going to the shops, paying bills or even going to the doctors can seem incredibly difficult. Relief only appears to come from avoidance and withdrawal from aspects of daily living. This often translates into depression, a common secondary effect of prolonged and untreated anxiety. The purpose of this story is not to provide ideas for how to treat anxiety or panic, but to possibly provide something more valuable. Hope!

Untreated anxiety can be manifested by symptoms such as phobias. Agoraphobia being one such common phobia. How can one walk into a shopping centre, filled with many potential threats, with any great confidence? Such occurrences that the rest of us take for granted. Clearly we have developed coping mechanisms that others haven’t.

Those that don’t have such coping mechanisms see most aspects of life as threatening.

To an extent, I talk from personal experience. My Mum had developed agoraphobia over many years. This had a substantial effect on her relationships with family as she became increasingly reliant on us to provide support for her. Finally, after years of isolation, apart from family, Mum began exhibiting signs of Panic Attacks. Difficult to diagnose, as these often manifest themselves as physical symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest pains.

Diagnosis was the first of our problems, as it takes time to isolate the symptoms and appropriately diagnose. This came from exhaustive testing of all physiological signs to exclude other medical issues. Then a plan of attack needs to be put in place to not only deal with the current symptoms, but plan for the future. This can be difficult as the future is somewhat uncertain.

I found great allies in mental health professionals that helped me in the development and introduction of multi faceted methods to deal with Mum’s anxiety. This also takes a great deal of time as diagnosis of mental health issues can be somewhat difficult, leading to time taken to introduce appropriate therapy. Probably the key to my Mum’s success though, was my Mum’s real determination to improve the state of her life, and her courage here should be noted. Without it, she would never have allowed me to take her to shopping centres, sit in car parks, walk to the doors, come back to the car and repeat the exposure slowly increasing the intensity until Mum could see how far she had come. Coupled with some relaxation exercises that Mum was taught, she slowly began to overcome her fears and the decreased anxiety lead to increased exposure to the world. Persistence and patience is the key, for both family and the person afflicted. Also, although I’m sure Mum would happily agree that she was not keen to gradually desensitize herself to her fears, trust in others such as family and those involved in her care provided some impetus toward management of her panic attacks.

I cannot appropriately write about 2 to 3 years of difficult times in such few words. Suffice to say, Mum is doing brilliantly now and recently told me how sometimes she is walking back from the shops and smiles to herself how good life is now. She asked why is that so? My answer was a lot of caring, persistence and courage got her through, as well as teamwork. Teamwork, planning and appropriate interventions; between Mum, family and the health care professionals.  This comes from careful and considered diagnosis. Sometimes better days seem a long way off, but belief in the process, persistence and good support are so important to the outcome. Anxiety can have so many triggering events, but over-all seems to develop over a long period of time. Therefore, it seems logical that treatment is a long-term proposition. There is light at the end of the tunnel, although at times it seems as if that light is an oncoming train! It isn’t, and it is so important to set small goals. As I said, the purpose of this story is not to give a step by step approach of how to deal with anxiety or panic attacks, but just to say that no matter how long the process may take, there can be a happy ending. Just ask my Mum!