By Terry Rindfleisch
Out of the blue, Linda Hartwich feels like she is having a heart attack.
The 46-year-old La Crosse area woman begins to sweat. Her heart pounds, her ears ring. She's nauseated and feels like she's going to pass out. She can't function for four to six hours, and can't work.
Over time, Hartwich realized she wasn't having heart attacks, even though they were so real to her she had gone to the hospital emergency department.
They were panic attacks.
"I feel like I'm going crazy," Hartwich said. "You're fine one minute, and the next minute you're freaking out, it hits you so hard."
Anxiety disorders, as a group, are the most common mental illnesses in America. Hartwich is among the more than 19 million American adults affected by the debilitating illness each year; she also has been diagnosed with depression.
These disorders fill people's lives with overwhelming anxiety and fear that can grow progressively worse.
"Anxiety is, by and large, a process of thought, and worrying about â€˜what if,'" said Mark Shaw, Franciscan Skemp Behavioral Health therapist.
People often view anxiety disorder as a weakness rather than a mental health issue, Shaw said. "Friends and family say, â€˜Just stop it!'" he said. "If they could stop worrying, they would."
"The panic attack comes whenever it wants to come, and there's no reason why it appears," Hartwich said. "I can't turn it off and on with a switch.
"People think you're nuts, but I'm not crazy," she said.
Anxiety disorder can be successfully treated and managed with therapy and, at times, combined with medication, Shaw said.
Hartwich has lived with an anxiety disorder for the past five to seven years. At first, her panic attacks came about twice a year and lasted 10 to 15 minutes.
Then they got worse.
"I had been in a state of panic and anxiety for every single day for a year," she said. "I was frustrated and had no idea what was wrong."
Doctors ruled out heart trouble, diabetes and other medical problems. A physician finally suggested a therapist, but Hartwich said she couldn't afford it because she didn't have health insurance.
Hartwich said she became desperate and couldn't deal with the disorder on her own.
"I was afraid to go anywhere because I was afraid I'd get a panic attack," she said.
Eventually, Hartwich was able to get help through public assistance. She has been in therapy for the past year, and now is seeing Mary Olstad-Hanson, a Franciscan Skemp Behavioral Health clinical therapist.
"I'm very hopeful, and I have the determination to get better," Hartwich said.
A Possible Chemical Imbalance in the Brain
Olstad-Hanson said some people with anxiety or panic disorder may have a chemical imbalance in their brains.
"It's something they just can't snap out of," she said.
She said she uses cognitive behavioral therapy, or talking through the signs and symptoms of anxiety or panic, to help people realize they're not having a heart attack or dying.
"We want to stabilize symptoms and help with people's coping skills," she said.
Bob Yerhot, a Gundersen Lutheran clinical social worker, said he tries to help people calm themselves physically and work through their thought patterns with cognitive behavioral therapy.
"With a combination of drugs and therapy, or cognitive behavioral therapy alone, we can reduce the severity, and frequently we can eliminate it," Yerhot said.
Some type of external stress triggers the anxiety or panic pattern, he said.
"I think my anxiety and panic attacks are due to so many years of being put down as a child," Hartwich said.
Now she's learned skills to cope with her anxiety, she said.
"I'm so happy I got some help," she said. "If I hadn't, I don't know where I'd be. I had to turn my life around."
Terry Rindfleisch can be reached at (608) 791-8227 or email@example.com.
Reprinted with permission of the La Crosse Tribune