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Severe Anxiety Symptoms

By Adina Michelsohn

Ron got up and ate breakfast as usual, but this would be no ordinary day. Ron was a freshman at the community college, and it was the beginning of finals week. He'd hardly slept all night, and there were barely two hours separating him from his American History exam. The first big test. Mulling the long day ahead, he scooped up a mound of soggy cornflakes, and felt his mouth go dry. He'd been feeling overly anxious since the semester began, but now something new was happening. He swigged his glass of OJ, but his throat felt tight. Unusually severe anxiety symptoms had appeared out of nowhere. He began to feel afraid.

"Man, what is happening to me?" he thought. His arms started to tingle. His head began to pound. His stomach lurched. "Jeez, I think I'm gonna be sick." Was it something he ate? Was it stress? He was having trouble catching his breath. Panic rose inside him like a flame up a torch. A tight feeling unlike any he'd ever experienced gripped his chest, and his next thought was, "Am I dying?" Ron fell to the floor in a fetal position, rocking and moaning, certain that an agonizing death was imminent. The severe anxiety symptoms had virtually paralyzed his rational mind.

Nearly 20 million adult Americans suffer from the debilitating effects of anxiety disorders, including anxiety attacks like the one Ron was experiencing. Of these, about 6 million have been diagnosed with panic disorder. One of the most common signs of an approaching anxiety attack is a sudden feeling of terror and helplessness. It can be triggered by a seemingly innocuous event, like crossing the street or meeting someone new, or result from changes in the parts of the brain that control memory and mood. Some doctors believe that some of these changes in the brain can be inherited.

Severe anxiety symptoms are often similar in anxiety attack sufferers, regardless of the trigger. These include: difficulty breathing or choking; chest pains and heart palpitations; pins and needles in the hands or feet; dizziness or nausea; feelings of sheer terror; profuse sweatiness, hot flashes or sudden chills; and a real fear of dying or going crazy. While unpleasant, most symptoms tend to persist for about ten minutes, though some symptoms may last much longer.

The commotion alerted Danny, his roommate, who took one look at his helpless friend and immediately called for help. While struggling to catch his breath, Ron cried out, "Danny, help me! Am I having a heart attack? I'm feeling so bad." The anxiety symptoms had become severe, and Ron was clearly in distress. He had never felt this way before, and was unable to push away the sense of doom that was enveloping him. He groaned when he heard Danny let in the EMTs and explain to them what had happened. This was not how the morning was supposed to go. After a quick evaluation by the techs to rule out a heart problem, Ron was taken to the ER for observation. So much for American History! But thankfully, by the time he reached the hospital and was seen by a doctor, the anxiety attack had passed.

For some people, an anxiety or panic attack is a one-time event. It can occur at any time, without warning, even during sleep. But typically, severe anxiety symptoms can recur unpredictably in those who are susceptible. The onset of panic attacks is most common in late adolescence or early adulthood, and is seen twice more often in women than in men.

Someone dealing with panic attacks will not necessarily develop a panic disorder. But without proper treatment, this becomes a real risk. A person will begin to obsess over a fear of another attack, and this can lead to all avoidance of triggering situations - whether that means stepping into an elevator, crossing a bridge, or boarding a plane. In the most serious of cases, about a third of people suffering from severe anxiety symptoms will eventually become diagnosed with agoraphobia.

Later that afternoon, Danny escorted a weary but exuberant Ron back to their dorm room. The bowl of dried up cereal still sat, half-eaten, on the kitchen table. There was an overturned chair, and the apartment looked slightly disheveled. Ron shot Danny a grin, and said mildly, "Gave you a real scare, didn't I?" It felt surreal to be back home. Everything looked the same, but it felt somehow different. The ER doctor had reassured Ron that he was physically fine, and advised him to make an appointment with his regular doctor for a follow-up visit. If he experienced a recurrence of severe anxiety symptoms, he should immediately return to the ER.

These reassurances helped Ron to feel momentarily at peace. But a nagging sense of something unresolved remained buried deep within. He wondered to himself, with a hint of foreboding, "Would this happen again? And could I do anything to prevent it?"

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