Generalized anxiety versus panic disorder

I was originally diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in 2003. GAD affects 6.8 million adults (3.1 percent of the U.S. population) in any given year. I exhibited the classic signs of GAD at the time; I was overwhelmingly concerned about everything in my life and constantly felt like the worst was going to happen.

This description from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America perfectly describes what I experienced:

Sometimes just the thought of getting through the day produces anxiety. They don’t know how to stop the worry cycle and feel it is beyond their control, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants.

I worried about what people were saying about me; the health of my family members; my personal health; money; school- you name it, I worried about it. I felt like I was living in a constant cycle of worry. In fact, I think at some point I stopped worrying about anything specific and just began to worry about being worried.

As I got older, I found that my general worries lessened- sure, I still worried about common things like money and health, but these concerns didn’t overpower my life. Instead, I began experiencing more frequent, debilitating panic attacks.

I didn’t think twice about this for many years- I knew that people with GAD could have anxiety attacks and I just chalked it up to that. It wasn’t until about two years ago when I began seeing a new therapist that I realized I didn’t have GAD anymore; instead, it had morphed into a panic disorder.

The ADAA explains that,

Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack. Panic attacks occur unexpectedly, sometimes even during sleep.

Yep- that’s me. My husband laughs at me because I oftentimes panic about having another panic attack.  I have a phobia of vomiting (emetophobia, more later on that) and any sensation I feel in my throat or stomach sends me into a tailspin. My panic attacks are triggered by the physical sensations of panic (many of which can mimic symptoms of feeling sick), particularly the feeling of tightness in the throat, lightheadedness, and getting hot.

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Understanding that GAD was no longer my primary diagnosis but that panic was the primary cause of my current issues was life-changing. My therapist changed her approach for treatment- instead of focusing on exposure for my phobia and learning to manage my worries, we began to focus on desensitizing myself to the physical symptoms of panic. Her favorite thing to tell me to do is to “learn to sit with my panic.”

I’d love to say that I’m “cured” or panic-free, but the reality is I don’t know that I ever will be. But I am learning how to live with a panic disorder and improving a little bit every day.

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