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Losing and Finding My Mind: My Journey Through (and Most Days Past) Panic Disorder

08/15/2014 05:28 pm ET | Updated Oct 14, 2014
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I will never forget the day my battle with panic came to a head. I set up an appointment with a lovely, seemingly well-informed psychologist to attempt to get help with a maddening array of mysterious symptoms I was experiencing. I fearfully described the strange and terrifying sensations that took hold of me, explaining that out of nowhere, I would begin to feel "weird and out of it, disconnected from the world around me and had a horrible feeling that I could lose control or go crazy." She looked back at me with her kind eyes and stated, "Perhaps you could benefit from medication." And given that our 45-minute session was soon ending, she then entered session wrap-up mode and emotionally escorted me to the door.

I left in a panic-fueled haze. I'd just received confirmation that there was really something wrong with me. My panic was sending me a signal, there is something terribly with you, and then a medical professional concurred with this taunting message. And what a night I had after this appointment. I didn't know where to go or who to talk to. How could anyone ever understand what it felt like to "lose it"? Was I going to end up locked up? How could I continue to move through life, pretending to be a high-functioning member of society? What if I were discovered as the fraud that I was?

At the time, I was able to "white knuckle" my way past panic disorder and push myself forward despite the discomfort. I only wish that someone had informed me that I was suffering from panic disorder and it is one of the most treatable mental health conditions. One painful side effect of my undetected panic disorder was that I came to believe there was something wrong with me, that in some core way I was broken or lacking -- and that was why I was experiencing such disturbing sensations.

If only I could time travel back to 1996. I would educate my young self on the physiology of panic disorder and explain to her in simple terms why she was experiencing those disturbing sensations. I would assure her that she is whole and of sound mind and in fact brave and powerful. I would let her know that she has so much to look forward to: meeting her wonderful husband, raising three delightful (and often exhausting) children and establishing a flourishing career as a clinical psychologist.

Unfortunately, it took me almost 10 years to accidentally stumble on the most empirically-supported treatment for panic disorder, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT. My goal is for this blog to expedite your journey to finding the most effective treatment to assist you in moving past your panic symptoms. As an anxiety expert (personally and professionally), I know that it is possible to arrive at a place where you can experience panic and anxiety as nothing more than a brain blip. You can get to a place where you are able to observe vs. get lost in your panic. These are not flippant words that I am sending out to my anonymous visitors through cyberspace, but heartfelt and sincere sentiments I'm sharing with my anxious fellow travelers.

Top CBT for panic tips:

1. Panic is a false alarm going off in your brain.

2. Just because you feel like you are in danger does not mean you are truly in danger.

3. Struggling with panic does not make you weak or broken; it just makes you a run-of-the-mill flawed human (like the rest of us).

4. The way past panic is to face it head on. You can teach your brain that you are not actually in danger by staying put and riding out the panic wave.

5. You can handle panic! It is not dangerous, it is just super-duper uncomfortable.

For assistance in moving past panic, contact a mental health professional trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or pharmacotherapies, or both. You can search for a therapist in your area on the ADAA website to help you with this challenging, but very important work. Consider taking a look at the self-help materials on the ADAA website, including "Facing Panic: Self-Help for People with Panic Attacks."