by Rob Fischer, PhD

The summer before my senior year in college, my mother died of lung cancer at the age of 57. I dealt with my loss privately, as I had handled most of my problems throughout adolescence: I repressed my grief and kept moving. I avoided talking about my mother's death and I continued my college work and social schedule as if nothing had happened.

Some six months later, my repressed feelings showed physical manifestation. I developed ulcer-like symptoms and a fear of being in group settings, particularly for meals. I also came to fear feeling nauseated in public and having to leave in a panic. The more I forced myself to stay, the greater my anxiety and perceived pain. Frequently I delayed eating until I could be in a safe environment. Over time I became a waifish 155 pounds on a 6'2" frame.

After seeking additional help, first from a physician and then a psychologist, I was diagnosed with panic disorder with agoraphobia. This confirmed that my phobia and symptoms were real and that I was not alone. I found it the most ironic of disorders; here I was, someone who had enjoyed groups and events, with a promising career involving frequent interpersonal interaction ahead of me, hamstrung with a phobia that caused me to detest groups, particularly functions involving a meal. I tried to deal with the situation proactively through talk therapy and some prescribed medication and at times out of frustration with alcohol.

More than 10 years later, I have a few lasting remnants of my anxiety disorder. I still prefer to avoid crowded situations, and I feel a small twinge of anxiety in restaurants, airport terminals, and malls. I recognize my symptoms before an episode occurs and take action to lessen the anxious feelings. But I am forever watching for any signs of reemergence, especially around times of significant change, loss, or stress. I never claim to have beaten my anxiety disorder; I manage it through behavioral and cognitive strategies that work for me.

I encourage you to talk about your feelings with those close to you and seek professional help immediately. Even if you worry, as I did, that medication could lead to a long-term dependence, don’t let it keep you from talking to your physician or counselor. Medication  can provide an anxiety-free window of opportunity in which you can work to address the issues underlying your disorder.

If you know someone who has an anxiety disorder, learn about it and provide support in the most uncritical manner possible. Learn to take a long view of the road to recovery and avoid unreasonable expectations for a quick cure. Anxiety disorders are manageable for most people, but professional care and personal strategies are both necessary for success.

"I found it most ironic; I was someone who enjoyed groups and events, and here I was hamstrung with a phobia that made me detest groups, particularly functions involving a meal."