Gripped by Panic; Therapy Targets 'Cycle of Anxiety'

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 11, 2005 | Go to article overview

Gripped by Panic; Therapy Targets 'Cycle of Anxiety'


Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Anna Somers once feared the color red.

Mrs. Somers was caring for her infant daughter and refused to give Rosa, now 7, Popsicles, yogurt or anything else that was red, afraid that if Rosa got hurt, she would not know the difference between a cut and a stain.

The Vienna woman, 39, says she cried constantly and was overly protective of Rosa, behaviors that led her to be diagnosed with postpartum depression. She began taking anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications and underwent traditional therapy.

"My anxiety was not getting any better," Mrs. Somers says, adding that she continued to have panic attacks with intrusive thoughts and fears centered around her daughter. "I was terribly fearful that harm would come to her, that I would be at fault because I'm her mother."

Mrs. Somers was re-diagnosed with panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder and in January 2000 began cognitive behavior therapy. She was exposed to what she feared and learned how to eliminate some of her behaviors and inappropriate avoidance techniques.

"I'm back to myself again, and no one can put a price on that," says Mrs. Somers, whose father and brother also have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a broader category that includes panic disorder, social and specific phobias, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other conditions.

She and her family are not alone. One person in 75 experiences panic disorder in his or her lifetime, according to the American Psychological Association in Northeast.

A person diagnosed with panic disorder needs to have at least one panic attack followed by concern or worry for at least a month about having another attack or an associated medical problem, says David L. Kupfer, a licensed clinical psychologist in Falls Church and an APA member.

"Panic disorder is worry about worry or panic about panic," says Mr. Kupfer, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. "Physical symptoms and anxiety help increase each other."

Panic attacks, which can occur without the disorder, consist of sudden fear that comes on without warning or reason and involves any number of symptoms, including rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, dizziness or lightheadedness, trembling, sweating, chills and chest pains, along with a fear of going crazy or dying, as described in the APA's Web site, www.apa.org.

Anyone can have a panic attack, and up to 30 percent of the population has had one, says Dr. Julia Frank, associate professor of psychiatry at George Washington University in Northwest.

Psychologists say panic attacks can be triggered by a psychological event, such as stress or an increase in anxiety or worry, along with low blood sugar, respiratory difficulties and too much caffeine, a stimulant. The triggers do not necessarily cause panic disorder.

"Anxiety itself can be normal and helpful," says Dr. Thomas Mellman, professor and vice chairman for research in psychiatry at Howard University in Northwest. "The problem of panic disorder is the disconnect between the normal adaptive response [and the anxiety]. It's too intense and too random to be helpful."

The body's fight or flight mechanisms misfire or malfunction, leading to panic, Dr. Mellman says.

"Genetics and heredity seem to be an important determinate," he says. "There are a number of studies going on trying to determine what those genetic factors are. Several candidate genes are under study, but none are implicated as causal. …

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