With only two months left in her junior year, Siobhan processed the final documents for her withdrawal from college. Academically, she had done quite well—she’d gotten into a great school, after all—and on paper, no one would be able to decipher the reason for her sudden departure. But Siobhan has been struggling with issues since she moved to her college town—nearly 1,000 miles away from her parent’s home—and those issues finally came to a head. The most pressing issue, and the reason she withdrew from classes, was panic disorder.
Siobhan had a happy childhood—she and her younger sister were well loved by their parents and had participated in music, dance and competitive academic pursuits. They’d had the privilege to travel the world with their grandparents, and had regularly volunteered for the organizations behind the philanthropic pursuits their mother was always overseeing. Aside from her father’s private struggle with clinical depression, everyone had been healthy and seemingly well-adjusted.
When Siobhan was 17, however, she was involved in a serious car accident. A man had sideswiped her in an intersection—Siobhan had been making a legal left turn—and the driver, only 27, was killed. From that day to this, Siobhan experiences panic whenever she rides in a car (she refuses to drive), and sometimes experiences the symptoms of panic attack while simply contemplating impending car travel—racing heart, trembling, profuse sweating and wooziness.
Siobhan’s debilitating fear about the prospect of driving and riding in a car has left her unable to leave her apartment. In addition to her symptoms of panic disorder, she has developed generalized anxiety disorder. Her greatest fears revolve around the idea of losing control and being witnessed mid-attack. She is an intelligent young woman and has excelled in nearly every pursuit, but her panic disorder has begun to truly inhibit her ability to function normally.
Symptoms of Panic Disorder
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes panic disorder as “sudden and repeated attacks of fear that last for several minutes.” These attacks are typically brought on by an individual’s fear of losing control or the imagined threat of danger, and are frequently triggered by a place or circumstance, although sufferers can even experience a panic attack during sleep. Panic attacks can feel like a heart attack, and a sufferer’s fear of having an attack, or the inability to stop it once it has started, may bring on further attacks.
NIMH lists the symptoms for panic disorder as:
- It is estimated that there are 6 million panic disorder sufferers in the U.S. and that nearly twice as many women than men experience its symptoms. Individuals most often acquire the disorder in adolescence or early adulthood, and there exists a genetic component; a person may be predisposed to panic disorder if they have a parent who has an anxiety disorder. Sudden and repeated attacks of fear
- A feeling of being out of control during a panic attack
- An intense worry about when the next attack will happen
- A fear or avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past
- Physical symptoms during an attack, such as a pounding or racing heart, sweating, breathing problems, weakness or dizziness, feeling hot or a cold chill, tingly or numb hands, chest pain, or stomach pain
The Problem of Anxiety
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, panic disorder frequently occurs with other mental health and physical disorders. Depression, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), asthma, substance abuse, and other anxiety disorders like agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social phobia and other phobias, and substance-induced anxiety disorder are some of these frequently co-occurring disorders.
People with panic disorder do not have to suffer; there are effective treatments for this anxiety issue and others. Treatment for panic disorder may include self-directed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), antidepressants or antianxiety medications, and exposure treatment—a type of CBT that involves exposure to an object or circumstance that causes phobia or panic.
Siobhan is receiving treatment for her panic disorder, and has even encouraged her father to attend therapy for his depression. Healing has not happened overnight but she has seen considerable improvements, and her fear of potential attacks has greatly reduced. She intends to be back in college at the start of the next semester, this time with tools to help her cope with her anxiety and a belief that panic will not rule her life.
College students face many adversaries, panic attacks and anxiety are only the surface. Many students use this time of their life to explore the drug world – however, many do not know the dangers these drugs possess. Read College Student’s Death Sparks Renewed Warnings About the Dangers of Inhalants to learn more.