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When Panic Attacks: The Cycle of Anxiety

By Todd Feist

In anxiety's fullest occupation of my spirit, a simple ache in the gut meant a symptom of a cancer, a failing liver, internal bleeding or any number of well-researched diseases.

On my way to class, I stepped off a crowded bus. I had to force myself along. I felt ill. My limbs were weak, and sweat streamed down my cheeks, despite the freezing temperatures. The people walking by seemed mad with duty and obligation.

I stopped at the foyer of the building. People continued to brush by me, into the room’s unbearable heat. The dirty, melting snow on the floor made my stomach swoon. Unable to go any further, I turned and hurried back to the bus stop.

The bus was packed. My heart raced. I felt on the verge of collapse. The people on the bus seemed to be studying me and whispering at my abnormality.

When the bus finally reached my stop, I pushed through the crowd, shoved the other passengers aside, and broke out of the bus door to freedom. But the satisfaction was temporary. I discovered further worries on my short walk home. Was I too rude in shoving people aside? What could they have thought of me? Had I thanked my hard-working driver? The street became unreal again. My condition, so strange and unidentifiable, seemed hopeless.

When the beast bites

"Always a bit more nervous" (Real Video 1:26.2 min)

To view these video segments you will need to download the Realplayer by clicking here.

This was my illness. At twenty-three, I became unable to confront reality. I felt old. I had worries for my worries. Anxiety is a clandestine cycle. It hides buried in constant thought. It holds hostage the feedback our bodies provide us with in order to ensure a long, prosperous life.

In anxiety’s fullest occupation of my spirit — my ostensibly vibrant spirit — a simple ache in the gut meant a symptom of cancer, a failing liver, internal bleeding or any number of well-researched diseases. The symptoms attack. They lead to worries of sickness, which lead to worries of abnormality, which leads to social ineptitude and more worries, all ending in more physical symptoms, completing the cycle of anxiety and panic.

Ignorant denial was the most practical attitude toward my anxiety before I sought help. I was in the first years of college, a time of self-assertion. While I was sorting through my character, I put my health aside. I went to the free health clinic at the university, where a general practitioner ran tests to rule out a physiological cause to my symptoms. To my relief, I had no cancers, no thyroid problems, and I did not suffer from malnourishment. The doctor gave me a clean bill of health — physical health, that is. This doctor referred me to the mental health clinic.

Identifying the beast

"I had no idea what was going on." (Real Video 1:34.8 min)

To view these video segments you will need to download the Realplayer by clicking here.

I never kept the appointment. Having grown up in a traditional Midwest family, where stoicism and silent acceptance are the normal attitudes toward personal crisis, I did not possess the life skills or perspective to realize that professional help was necessary. When people hear "mental illness" the phrase often conjures thoughts of lunacy, Bedlam, straightjackets, and extreme depravity. I did not want that stigma. What did my debilitating illness say about my role as a man and future father? Mental illness just did not fit.

After graduating from college, I did not have the means to seek care. In the middle of relocation, my symptoms became worse. I was hit hard by panic attacks, sometimes several in a day. Panic sneaks up, and seizes its victim unexpectedly. The symptoms are extreme. I have found that anxiety can be as debilitating, especially over several weeks or months. But nothing is as frightening as a panic attack.

I secluded myself in my apartment, which I shared with my girlfriend. There, I brought the illness into the age of technology. If I suspected brain tumor as the cause of my suffering, I merely typed "brain tumor" into a search engine, and thousands of relevant web pages were readily accessible with the click of a button. The Internet provided me with an anxious outlet, without social interaction.

When my girlfriend returned from work, she would want to go out, to take busy buses into the city and sit in crowded bars, restaurants or movie theaters. I saw my girlfriend as the bearer of subsequent suffering. I helplessly heard myself become hostile towards her, for taking me out of the safety of the apartment. After the illness ruined my relationship, I knew that I could not go on alone.

Taming the beast

"Being a father" (Real Video 1:46.3min)

To view these video segments you will need to download the Realplayer by clicking here.

I struggled with funds to pay for my care in the next year. I am currently healing, but it is an ongoing battle. The conditions of generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and agoraphobia are chronic, and they get worse with age. But my current doctor is gracious and open to suggestions. And, most importantly, she knows how to treat the illness. I trust my doctor.

I take anywhere from 18-20 pills per day, and the medications work. I hold a steady job. The cycle of thought still arises, but I can identify it, and absorb it before it is complete. I still feel old at times, but, right along with these feelings, I detect more than a trace of imparted wisdom.

Video pieces written and directed by Owen C. Franklin and Jessica DuLong

Produced by HighSpeedMedia

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