When I was about 30 I had my first panic attack. I was driving home, my three little girls were in their car seats in the back, and all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe, I broke out into a sweat, and my heart began racing and literally beating against my ribs! I thought I was going to die. I pulled off the road and put my head on the wheel. I remember songs playing on the CD for about 15 minutes and my kids’ voices singing along. I was sure I’d never see them again. And then, it passed. I slowly got back on the road and drove home. I had no idea what it was. (Ceejay, 2006) 1
Ceejay is experiencing panic disorder, a psychological disorder characterized by sudden attacks of anxiety and terror that have led to significant behavioral changes in the person’s life. Symptoms of a panic attack include shortness of breath, heart palpitations, trembling, dizziness, choking sensations, nausea, and an intense feeling of dread or impending doom. Panic attacks can often be mistaken for heart attacks or other serious physical illnesses, and they may lead the person experiencing them to go to a hospital emergency room. Panic attacks may last as little as one or as much as 20 minutes, but they often peak and subside within about 10 minutes.
Sufferers are often anxious because they fear that they will have another attack. They focus their attention on the thoughts and images of their fears, becoming excessively sensitive to cues that signal the possibility of threat (MacLeod, Rutherford, Campbell, Ebsworthy, & Holker, 2002). 2They may also become unsure of the source of their arousal, misattributing it to situations that are not actually the cause. As a result, they may begin to avoid places where attacks have occurred in the past, such as driving, using an elevator, or being in public places. Panic disorder affects about 3% of the American population in a given year.