Life

Panic Attacks: Most Anxiety Disorders Can Be Treated

MONTREAL - It was supposed to be a big break for Stefie Shock — the Quebec rocker was going live on TV to promote his new album.

As a young musician at the time, such a spotlight could only be good for Shock's career.

Then the panic attack hit.

"I didn't give a good interview because I was almost suffocating. I was trying to stay alive. I was not in danger, but every time you have the crisis, you don't know."

The incident happened 20 years ago and Shock has since gotten his panic attacks under control. But the memories of the almost daily events are vivid.

"I acted strange because I couldn't breathe," he recalled in an interview. "I felt like I was losing consciousness."

He would try to catch his breath or hold onto his chest because he felt pain. He would wiggle his fingers because he couldn't feel the tips or he would hyperventilate.

And it could happen anytime — even on a warm summer day, for example, when he was relaxing with a cold beer.

"A panic attack doesn't wait for you to feel some stress about a particular situation," he said.

"It's not physical pain, but it's torture. And you know it can always come back. There comes a time when you learn how to deal with it and to face it and to accept that it's part of your life.

"It's part of what you are and you have to find ways not to poison your life with it."

Camillo Zacchia, a psychologist with Montreal's Douglas Institute, says that 50 to 70 per cent of people will suffer symptoms similar to a panic attack in a given year but most will blow it off.

Ten per cent of people suffer from an anxiety disorder and panic attacks are part of almost all anxiety disorders.

But Zacchia points out that anxiety disorders are among the most treatable psychological problems through the use of behaviour therapy or medication — or sometimes a combination of both.

Zacchia also recommends that people who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder see a specialist.

"You want to bring anxiety to a level where it no longer controls your life, no longer interferes with your functioning," Zacchia says. "It's OK to be anxious, it's OK to worry because that's normal human experience.

"Anxiety disorders are treatable and you will be able to live without panic, but you won't be able to live without any anxiety because otherwise you'd be dead."

Zacchia points out that anxiety is normal. People are, in fact, born with it.

For example, children are afraid of monsters under their beds or being separated from their parents, he notes. Teenagers worry about being accepted. Adults fret about success and the elderly are concerned about their health.

"Anxiety is what we feel when we're threatened," he explained, noting some people feel more anxious than others.

"When anxiety is working in balance, we avoid things that are dangerous. We don't drive too fast when it's slippery, we go to the doctor when we feel a pain. That's why anxiety is about degree.

"When it starts to become exaggerated, it controls our lives."

One of the biggest fears of people who have panic disorders is having a panic attack.

Shock takes medication to control night terrors which wake him up with a hammering heart and disorientation. But the musician says he has never suffered a panic attack on stage and it has never stopped him from performing.

He has felt the occasional bit of stage fright, which is normal for performers, but says "stage fright ends once you put your foot on stage."

Shock, 42, says doctors blamed a chemical imbalance for his panic attacks.

Zacchia says panic is one aspect of anxiety and it's felt when the anxiety is acute. The body goes into alarm mode but the anxiety mechanism works against itself triggering what he called "the fear of fear mechanism."

"It's like an alarm that rings in the face of danger," Zacchia said of the anxiety mechanism. "But what if I'm afraid of being anxious?

"If I'm threatened by anxiety, the minute I feel any anxiety, the anxiety alarm goes off. So anxiety triggers anxiety and that creates a stronger response. That's why people go from feeling almost nothing to complete panic in almost no time at all."

He cited the case of one man who had a history of panic attacks in classrooms. He would panic and have to leave.

Zacchia said one day the man was taking a class on human sexuality where large slides of female reproductive organs were projected on a screen.

"He gets the thought: 'What if I panic now? If I panic now and I have to leave everyone is going to think it's because I'm uncomfortable with the vagina so I'd better not panic now!'

"Of course, the fact that he felt anxiety became a threat and then his body reacted naturally and he panicked."

Zacchia said that in 30 years of treating patients, none of them had a panic attack when he asked them to do so in his office.

Shock went for two years without treatment because he was unaware of his anxiety disorder. He is active in trying to inform the public and is one of the spokespeople for Bell's mental health awareness campaign.

He said some people still feel there are stigmas attached to having the problem or admitting to it but he urges sufferers to seek help.

"All the help is available easily," Shock said. "It's not mysterious so there's no reason for someone to have problems like that and do nothing.

"I waited and waited. It came a time when I couldn't stand it anymore. I was feeling miserable because day after day for two years, it gets you down. I was exhausted.

"So why wait?"