For people suffering from anxiety disorders, panic attacks can strike anywhere, anytime.
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For people suffering from anxiety disorders, panic attacks can strike anywhere, anytime.

The first time I experienced it, I was on journalistic assignment on a rundown street in Lahore, Pakistan. Suddenly, my world seemed to cave in on itself. I began gasping for air like a drowning man, drowning even as the rest of the world continued around me. I was 25 years old, 8,000 miles from home, and going insane, it seemed.

What I had suffered, I would later discover, was a panic attack, and in the years since, I’ve had a few more of them, on planes, in elevators, and various other spaces, cramped and otherwise.

“I know how absurd this sounds, even while it’s happening,” a woman named Suzanne tells me, her words sounding eerily familiar. “I wouldn’t wish these feelings upon my worst enemy.”

Suzanne—a successful business owner in her mid-50s—still doesn’t know what triggered her first round of panic attacks four years ago. One minute she was on Beltway 8, sitting calmly behind the wheel in heavy traffic, the next she felt an eruption of terror rolling through her body. Her arms turned to rubber, her chest tightened, and her skin flushed with heat.

“I used to call it being blind-sided,” she says. “I would be going along randomly and the panic would hit me.”

Not surprisingly, Suzanne took to avoiding spaces and situations that might re-trigger the attacks. For her, this has meant no driving on freeways, over bridges or on any kind of elevated surface, navigating Houston via neighborhood streets and out-of-the-way roads. She has to, otherwise she becomes consumed with fear that she might lose control of her vehicle. Needless to say, having a fear of driving in Houston—of all places—can be devastating.

In hopes of leaving our self-styled prisons, Suzanne and I separately sought out the University of Houston’s Anxiety Disorder Clinic, which happens to be one of the leaders in the field. Dr. Peter Norton, who runs the clinic, disputes the notion that these attacks are somehow special. “Panic disorder may look different from generalized anxiety disorder, but what’s going on internally in your brain really seems to be the same processes,” Norton says. “It’s just you’re afraid of public speaking, and I’m afraid of germs.” 

“You realize there is a whole range of anxiety disorders and yours isn’t unique. There was a sense of camaraderie after the first class. And relief.” 

Norton, a leading anxiety researcher, crisscrosses the globe lecturing about a new brand of therapy inspired by what he sees as the common thread running through all anxiety disorders: fear. His clinic at U of H was among the first nationwide to try Transdiagnostic Group Behavioral Therapy, which amounts to thrusting anxiety sufferers of all stripes into three-month-long group-therapy sessions. 

For many, that approach seems counterintuitive. The prospect of sharing any sort of secret with strangers would appear fear-provoking in itself. But according to Norton, the way to get past these fears is to embrace them. Suzanne reports that her condition is improving thanks to these sessions.

“You realize there is a whole range of anxiety disorders and yours isn’t unique,” she says, pointing out that one of the worst byproducts of severe anxiety is the feeling of isolation that accompanies it. “There was a sense of camaraderie after the first class. And relief.” 

Suzanne has now moved on to a new phase of treatment with the clinic’s doctors—exposure therapy—which involves getting back on the highway with a psychologist at her side. She’s making progress, she says, and slowly reclaiming her former territory, inside and out.

“It’s like a domino effect,” she says. “Each little victory leads to the next and suddenly your world starts opening back up.”