Don't Ever Give Up On Yourself:
Maureen's Story

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How Did It Start?

As a child, I was a worrier – nervous, timid and shy.  At social events or in new situations, I felt afraid and my heart would race.  Yet, I didn't have my first panic attack until I was 22 years old.

I had just completed my junior year of college in England.  It was the night before I was to return to the States.  I awoke from a sound sleep with the most terrifying feeling of fear, and with an equally strong urge  to run outside.  My heart was pounding so hard I thought it was going to explode.  I was covered in sweat.

It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I experienced my next panic attack.  I was under tremendous stress from events in my life.  My father had been sick for many years, and he was losing a long, hard battle.  My father and I were very close.  He was the most significant person in my life.  I don’t have a vocabulary to articulate the intense pain I felt when he passed.  At the same time, I was downsized from my job, my relationship ended, my roommate and I parted ways, and I moved to a new city.


What Was The Suffering Like?

At this time, the panic attacks began to happen on a daily basis.  Throughout the day, I would have waves of panic washing over me.  I felt afraid of everything.  I experienced object distortion, drug-like states of disorientation, scary thoughts and shortness of breath.

I had no idea what was happening to me – or why – so I just kept living my life.  I told no one.  The only problem was my life was getting smaller and smaller with each passing day.  Eventually, it got so bad and my life was so small, I had to seek out professional help.


Diagnosis

The first therapist I went to misdiagnosed me;  she said I was suffering from ‘situational stress’.  She had no knowledge of panic disorder.  The therapy gave me some relief by addressing and reducing the symptoms of my panic, but it didn't address the panic itself.  Thus, although my panic stopped for a while eventually it came back.  I had a similar experience with my second therapist.  Again, the therapist had no experience or training in panic disorder, thus the therapy only offered temporary relief.

About 5 years after I started to seek help, I finally diagnosed myself, through my own self-education.   I then searched for and found a therapist who specialized in anxiety and panic.

In my first session with my new therapist, I told her all my symptoms and what I had been going through all these years.  To my amazement, she raised her right hand in a dismissive motion and nonchalantly said, "Its just panic.  It's completely curable.  Consider yourself lucky."

I will never forget the sense of relief her words gave me.  It was a turning point in my life – the point when I started to reclaim my life.

My new therapist was trained in the “MAP program”, developed by Dr. David Barlow.  “MAP” is short for “Mastery of your Anxiety and Panic”.  We immediately embarked upon this course of treatment, which is a cognitive-behavioral program specifically designed for overcoming panic disorder.

However, before we could finish the process, my therapist moved out of state, and we had to end our work together.  She referred me to the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University.  The Center is run by Dr. Barlow and is the premier facility for treating panic disorder.


Healing

The first thing I had to do at the Center was to undergo an in-depth, four-hour evaluation.  The intake nurse asked me every conceivable question concerning my scary thoughts, depression, social situations, behavior, etc.  After the intake, my case was discussed at the weekly staff meeting.  Then, I was assigned a therapist who would work with me on a weekly basis throughout the three-month program.

The first part of the program centered on education.  I learned all about the biology, psychology and history of panic.  I learned what was happening to my body when I panic, why it was happening and what all the sensations meant.  I also learned about the factors leading to a predisposition for panic.

Education was a very comprehensive part of the program, and it helped me tremendously.  I finally knew what was happening to me and that I wasn't crazy!  My panic was simply a manifestation of stress.

Next, I learned how I had associated my bodily sensations as triggers for a panic attack – how I had actually created my own panic.  Then, we worked on “cognitive reframing” – changing the way I thought about my bodily sensations.

One of the most important things I learned during this process was how our thoughts create chemical reactions in our brains.  If I think a certain way, a certain chemical reaction is going to take place, causing a certain result.  Thus: change the thought – change the chemical reaction – and change the result.  Basically, our brain can act as our own “pharmacy”.   

Next, we moved on to recreating the sensations which triggered my panic.  We actually induced panic attacks!  I needed to experience panic so I could use my new “cognitive reframing” skills and develop new behavior in relation to panic.  I also needed to experience panic repeatedly, so I would understand it wasn't going to hurt me. 

This was the most frightening thing I have ever done – to invite panic.  Yet, the quickest way to recovery is to truly understand that panic is your own creation and there is no reason to be afraid of it.  Once you do this, you take all the power out of panic.  

My program lasted three months and today I am panic free.  I still get anxious sometimes, but I don't turn it into panic.


Today

Today, I view my panic disorder as a gift.  It helped me to become brave.  

In addition to my cognitive-behavioral skills, I practice deep relaxation breathing.  Through my daily relaxation breathing, I have come to experience a deep sense of peace, calmness and strength.


My Message to Others

I lived with panic – and the feeling there was something wrong with me – for well over 15 years before I found the help I needed.  I had lots of false starts, but I never gave up on myself.  Eventually, I accomplished my goal to become panic free.  My road was bumpy.  There were days when I didn't know if I had the courage to endure the severe panic attacks I was experiencing in therapy, but my desire to recover was stronger than my fear. 

Don't ever give up on yourself and your ability to rid yourself of panic.  Panic is a learned behavior.  If you have mastered the skill of bringing on panic attacks, give yourself a pat on the back for having learned to do that!  Now, it is time for a new goal: to master the art of living a life free of panic. 

If I can do it, you can do it.  If you would like to contact me, please feel free to email me at maureenventola@gmail.com.  I'm happy to help someone on their road to recovery.

"Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing."
– Abraham Lincoln 


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