Panic attacks, anxiety not uncommon

By Anita Doberman: Columnist

I get panic attacks. They’re not frequent, and I’ll go years without one. But inevitably and without warning, they show up like an uninvited guest.

I say without warning, but they’re not entirely random. While my husband is trying to assure me I’m not having a heart attack, he’ll gently ask me what’s happening in my life. Sure enough, it’s not coincidence the panic has returned just when things are at their most stressful, even if not at that particularly moment.

So it was a few days ago while I was sitting under the heating helmet at a local salon, when all of a sudden, panic attack. My heart started racing, and I felt like an elephant had landed on my chest, with one foot on my throat. Most of all I’m filled with an irrational and overwhelming terror.

As usual, a few minutes later, it’s mostly gone. I got on the phone and managed to reach my husband, who confirmed (he has to do this surprisingly often) that I’m not, in fact, dying at that very moment. And sure enough, after talking to him I conceded that he just might be right, things are more stressful than usual. Between my husband staring down another government paid “vacation,” my beloved grandmother’s terminal illness, and my mad plan to fly myself and all the kids to see her with a 10-hour layover in Newark, N.J. (the only vaguely affordable tickets, alas), there was a lot on my emotional plate.

It’s funny that even though I am the first one to say there is no shame in talking about mental issues I hesitated to write this column. But I had recently done some research for a magazine article about stresses in the military community, and had come across literature on post-traumatic stress disorder, and other common mental problems.

If I can’t write about a significant, though manageable, issue in my own life, how can I encourage people with more serious troubles to be open enough to get help? These problems are by no means limited to the military population.

There will always be doubters and stoics who don’t understand why some people can’t just “get over” whatever’s on their mind, or learn to tough it out. It’s true that a little mental discipline goes a long way. But it’s also true that there are thousands of people who suffer in silence, afraid or embarrassed to ask for help.

It’s easier for women to be more upfront; we don’t have to deal with the macho mentality or the same perceptions of weakness. It’s much harder for men to admit that there is a problem. It’s even more complicated in military circles where service men and women must deal with reconciling the values of their world with the help they may need.

From personal experience, I know there are some things you can’t just snap out of. I’m fortunate, because I have support, and because my issue is manageable. Many people may go their whole lives without ever running into such an emotional hurdle, but many others live with such difficulty on a daily basis, including people in uniform. So be slow to judge and quick to encourage those who might need help with anxiety, depression or PTSD. Your support, or at the least, your lack of disapproval, may make all the difference to them.