Panic disorder is not a character defect

DR YANSIE ROLSTON Monday, March 27 2017

A COLLEAGUE described packing her lunch, driving to the venue of an important work seminar, and then being so crippled by a panic attack that she was not able to enter the room. Her co-workers and others were unsympathetic because they had no concept what it feels like to be stymied by the disorder.

Remember when as a child you were in bed at night, frozen with fear because the curtain, pictures or ornaments cast a shadow that looked like a ghost, bogey man or potential murderer.

Remember how scared you felt as you started to panic – the heart rate quickening, palms get clammy, that low hum reverberating in your head, and the hands trembling.

When the defence mechanism was to pray, and distract your thoughts, even though you would invariably end up staring at the apparition convincing your young mind of your certain demise.

Subsequent nights would be filled with situational avoidance as you try to persuade parents or guardians that the lights in the corridor needed to be kept on (relevant to those of us who belong to the generation before the advent of those cute, child-friendly Disney plug-in night lights).

Other self-protection methods varied from double checking behind the curtains, having a torch, the rosary, Bible or a pocket penknife by the bedside.

Can you relate to this? If so, my question is –why do people who are affected by the mental health challenge of panic disorders (PD) endure such a lack of empathy, and face undue negativity and discrimination, when what they are living with is a highly exaggerated version of those childhood anxiety- inducing symptoms that strike them without warning? For many, it is not the possibility of a visit from the ghost or bogey man that causes them distress, but for people like my colleague, it is her lived experience of PD which causes her disabling anguish.

Panic disorder which is when panic attacks not related to specific situations occur frequently, and is characterised by a constant worry of other attacks, is fairly common. It touches as many as one in every 75 people, disproportionately affecting women.

There is also a genetic component, so if someone in the family lives with the disorder, or depression, there is the potential that other members will have an increased risk of having an episode during an unduly stressful time.

The Achilles heel is that many people do not understand mental health, so their point of reference is the perception of a violent, out-of-control, deranged person.

However, the evidence is clear that this is not representative of most mental health challenges, including PD.

So, isn’t it time the outdated notions of mental health is dispelled? Wayne Katon’s research on PD shows that appropriate knowledge and understanding of the disorder can reduce health care costs.

Therefore, given the current austerity measures, awareness raising will of course be beneficial. My suggestion as an initial step in this process is that the next time you encounter someone living with the disorder to actively and non-judgmentally engage in dialogue with them.

You will find out how intensely terrifying those attacks are, and be enlightened on what it is like to endure that heightened sense of fear, apprehension and anxiety that occurs without warning. They will tell you about the: racing heartbeat light headedness or nausea sweating and clammy hands feeling unable to breathe tingling fingers or toes, or trembling feeling a disconnect between the body and mind about their fear of losing control, of having a heart attack, or feeling like they are about to die, and the ongoing dread of experiencing future attacks.

They will also disclose their own situational avoidance strategies –the significant events, things and circumstances they unwillingly avoid and forego. Such as the beach lime to Maracas they desperately wanted to attend so they could get their favourite Richard’s bake and shark, but declined because they were worried about having an attack in public.

PD is not a character defect, nor is it a sign of weakness. It is a serious condition that requires understanding, and compassion.

Dr Yansie Rolston FRSA is a UK-based disability and mental health specialist advisor.

She is a social change trainer and facilitator who works internationally, at various levels of government, business, and civil society. Contact her at yr@efficacyeva.

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