Vanessa King, 26, is a student at Elgin Community College, with plans to start a career in art therapy. Talking with her today, it’s hard to picture her at one time virtually bedridden for months because of severe anxiety.
“My life was definitely on hold,” she says.
King remembers missing a lot of school as a child because her anxiety led to frequent stomach aches and vomiting. This pattern subsided during her teen years, but the extreme anxiety returned.
By 2008 she was suffering from a full-blown panic disorder with agoraphobia — intense fear that she would be stuck somewhere “unsafe” while having severe anxiety symptoms.
“During part of that year, I didn’t go anywhere,” King says. “I was terrified of my symptoms.”
A panic attack might include symptoms such as an accelerated heart rate, lightheadedness, dizziness, faintness and nausea, says M. Joann Wright, director of the Anxiety Program at Linden Oaks at Edward.
The person fears their symptoms could mean a heart attack or even death. At the very least, they fear being embarrassed when people notice their symptoms.
“And anxiety can worsen over time if untreated. Avoidance (of what you fear) pulls you into more avoidance,” Dr. Wright says. “For example, a person with panic disorder with agoraphobia may initially resist travel to another state. But this can accelerate into avoidance of an unfamiliar neighborhood, and so on. Eventually, the person may be confining themselves to a single room in their home.”
Late in 2010, King was referred to the Linden Oaks Anxiety Program, which involves 3-1/2 hours of therapy daily, Monday through Friday, typically for about three weeks. Group and individual sessions use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help patients commit to pursuing what they want in their lives. They learn ways to accept and manage the symptoms that are getting in their way.
“ACT literally gave me my life back,” King says. “It’s in your face and encourages you to push your limits. You see that feeling anxious is not going to kill you.”
The homework assignments helped King step out of her comfort zone to achieve her goals. One of her assignments involved filling out a college registration form. Successfully completing this task brought her closer to actually attending college, an important goal she’d put on hold for years.
“It’s great to see patients triumph over the fear,” Dr. Wright says. “They suddenly feel they can take on the world.”
King is married and a full-time student. She also volunteers to share her story with participants in the Linden Oaks Anxiety Program.
“I still have a few panic attacks, but I don’t stop what I’m doing when that happens,” she says. “I just take some deep breaths and ride through it.”
Wright says most patients’ improvement continues after the program ends with continued practice.
“Sometimes the symptoms disappear; sometimes they learn to accept them,” Wright says. “In either case, they are functioning at a much higher level.”
Earlier this year, Linden Oaks earned The Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval and Disease-Specific Certification for commitment to excellence in anxiety care. Linden Oaks is the first health-care organization in the country to receive such recognition.
For more information, visit www.edward.org/anxiety. For a free mental health assessment, call the Linden Oaks 24/7 Help Line at 630-305-5027.
Health Aware is a weekly column courtesy of Edward Hospital.Tags: Edward Hospital, health, Health Aware