Robert's Path of Recovery from Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia

Hello, my name is Robert, and I am recovering from panic disorder and agoraphobia.  Briefly, this is my story.

I am 45 years old, and in good health.  For my entire life, up until about 4 years ago, I had no difficulty at all traveling long distances from home.  In fact, I love to fly fish, and regularly took 2 or 3 trips a year from my home in Southern California to the trout streams of Montana.  Sometimes I drove and sometimes I flew, and I was quite comfortable doing both.  I was also able to make many other long distance trips – flying across the country, or even going outside of the United States – with ease.

But, one summer about four years ago, my life suddenly changed.  I was on a trip to Montana, and had flown part way and then rented a car.  I was driving into Yellowstone National Park, when I began to feel “badly” – nervous, light-headed, and kind of dizzy.  I stopped the car at an area with some shops and restaurants, near Yellowstone Falls.  I thought that if I had something to eat and rested a little, I would feel “better”.  

I ate a hamburger and sat down to rest, but the “bad” feelings just kept getting worse and worse.  I even tried walking around, but nothing seemed to make the feelings go away.  Soon, I was beginning to panic, and found it necessary to ask a Park Ranger for help. I thought that something was seriously wrong.  I was having really scary thoughts that I might have a heart attack, a stroke, or that I might die.  I was feeling worse and worse, and getting more and more scared.  A vicious cycle – over which I seemed totally powerless – had taken me over. 

Pretty soon, the Park Ranger asked what I wanted to do, and I said I thought I should go to the Park Hospital, 25 miles away.  She agreed to give me a ride, because I didn’t feel well enough to drive.  As we drove along the Yellowstone River to the Hospital, my heart kept going faster and faster, and I felt worse and worse.  Before long, I was just sure I was having some major health event, and was going to die.  The drive seemed to go on for hours.  In the last few minutes, I was absolutely overcome with fear and anxiety.  Finally, when we arrived at the hospital, I was very unsteady on my feet getting out of the Ranger’s vehicle.  The Ranger had to help me walk inside the hospital, where I was just certain I would collapse and die.

As almost all who are reading this already know, the extremely capable hospital staff found absolutely nothing physically wrong with me.  My anxiety abated in a matter of seconds after being reassured, and I felt like I had come “back to earth”.  Still though, I was totally dazed and confused by the event, which was as profound an experience as I had ever been through.  On my billing papers, the Doctor at the hospital entered as her diagnosis:  “acute anxiety”.

I went home and had a complete physical examination with my extremely able doctor.  Nothing was physically wrong.

The following spring I went on a long anticipated fishing trip to the Bahamas.  The first day there, after fishing for an hour or so, I began having heart palpitations.  Again, I  became so fearful that I was having a heart attack that I asked to be taken to the hospital.  Again, the hospital staff found nothing physically wrong.  This time, the doctor wanted to give me Xanex – a tranquilizer – which I declined.  Instead, I went home on the next flight I could get, leaving my fishing buddy behind.

On my return home, I immediately reported this incident to my doctor, who sent me to a cardiologist.  The cardiologist did a complete evaluation, including a treadmill, EKG, and Holter monitor.  And – you guessed it – there was absolutely nothing wrong.  The cardiologist said he didn’t want to see me again, or do anything further.  My heart was completely fine.

Yet, despite all the fine doctors’ reassurances, I began having more and more trouble traveling.  Each time I tried to go back to Montana, I had to turn around and come home.  Pretty soon, I had to turn around and come home from trips I tried with my girlfriend – even as close as Las Vegas. 

Then, I began having panic attacks out of nowhere, even close to home – at restaurants, movie theatres, the golf course, and work.  What was wrong?

I saw one therapist for over a year.  All she wanted to do was talk about my inner child and other family issues.  It didn’t do a bit of good, and cost me a small fortune.  She and others – including my own doctor – were beginning to push the idea of medications.  But for me, having worked hard to eliminate drugs and alcohol from my life – and having 13 years clean and sober – this was not a viable option.

I felt absolutely hopeless.  Once, I tried to go on a trip by airplane, and was so panic-stricken that I couldn’t even get out of the cab at the airport.  I was totally demoralized.  Wasn’t there anyone who could understand or help?  I fired my therapist.

Thank goodness I was persistent.  I kept reading, looking for information, and making telephone calls to anyone who would listen.  Eventually I was given a phone number, and when I called, Neal answered.  He very calmly told me about his own recovery from panic disorder and agoraphobia, and informed me of a very good program at UCLA’s Department of Psychology.

At the UCLA program, utilizing the “Tools” of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (“CBT”), I was taught that all the physical sensations of a panic attack are completely harmless.  These sensations are just part of the “fight or flight” mechanism of the body, which is really meant to help and protect us in times of danger.  

I learned that the “fight or flight” mechanism was being triggered for some reason when it wasn’t really needed, but that it couldn’t hurt me at all.  I learned that all of the “scary thoughts” that happened during the panic attack – such as “I’m going to die” or “I’m going to go crazy” – were wrong, and that I could challenge them and diminish their “power” over me.  

Through gradually facing situations that brought on the “scary” sensations, I learned to really experience – and therefore deeply believe – that “scary feelings” can’t hurt me.  Then, once I really believed the truth – that the “scary feelings” couldn’t hurt me – they started to just go away.  

Pretty soon, I began to take trips.  I would stay longer and longer, and go farther and farther.  I put a lot of miles on my new Honda!

Now, guess what?  I am making trips to go fly-fishing in Montana again!  I hardly get the “scary feelings” anymore, and if I do, I know they can’t hurt me.  I just go about my business, and they pass.  

I am recovering!  And I didn’t have to take medications.  With continued work on the Cognitive Behavioral “Tools”, my recovery will become more and more complete.  I am grateful to Neal, and to Janice and Jason, my counselors at UCLA.