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The fear factor.

BRENNA, 17, ALWAYS THOUGHT SHE WAS SHY. BUT WHEN SHE BECAME TOO "SHY" TO GO TO THE MALL OR JUST TALK ON THE PHONE, SHE WONDERED IF HER PROBLEM WAS MUCH BIGGER THAN THAT. MEET ONE OF THE OVER ONE MILLION GIRLS IN AMERICA WHO SUFFER FROM PANIC ATTACKS AND ANXIETY DISORDER.

It started in middle school. One day during cooking class, some girls wouldn't let me help out with a recipe. I got so paranoid that they were talking about me behind my back that I just sat there, frozen to my seat. Near the end of class, my teacher came over and asked me if I was OK. Suddenly, my palms got sweaty, I was shaking, and my heart seemed to be pounding right out of my chest. When the bell rang, I started crying and couldn't stop. I didn't know what was happening to me, but I felt this horrible, choking fear. I just thought, "Everyone, get away from me!" What I didn't know was that I'd just had my first panic attack.

As a little kid, I would talk to just about anybody. But by third grade, kids were making fun of me because I was overweight and, as a result, I became very shy. Basically, I didn't want to put myself in a vulnerable position because I was terrified of being teased about my weight.

By sixth grade, my "shyness" had become much worse. I became really afraid of teachers. If any teacher approached me, my eyes would well up with tears. I was also constantly afraid that other kids were talking about me, so I hardly spoke to anyone except my best friend.

After that first episode in cooking class, my attacks got worse. Still, no doctor had diagnosed me as having panic attacks, so I didn't have any idea what was happening with me. I just knew it wasn't normal. I had the attacks several times a month and tried desperately to prevent them by keeping to myself and avoiding any social situations.

But what really set me off was having to do presentations in class. Once all eyes were on me, I'd get so shaken that if I was holding a piece of paper, I'd mindlessly shred it to pieces! It was totally embarrassing.

In eighth grade, a neighborhood boy, whom I really liked, asked me to go to a dance with him. I was so freaked that I said, "OK," just so he'd go away--and he did. I was shaking so uncontrollably that by the time I got to my house, I had a full-blown attack. I felt totally afraid of this great guy, and I didn't know why.

When I told my mom about it, she figured I was just having a typical reaction to being asked out for the first time. But deep down, I knew it was way more than that. I stood my neighbor up the night of the dance, and I felt awful about it.

JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!

My problem began to interfere with every aspect of my life. I gave up a lot of activities. I never went to slumber parties, and I stopped playing sports. But certain situations, like gym class, were unavoidable. During gym, I would nervously tuck my hair behind my ears over and over again. By the end of class, the tops of my ears would be bleeding from my fingernails scraping them.

I stopped going to restaurants and the mall, even with my parents, because I was so fearful of running into kids from school. Just walking through the school halls caused me to tremble and become nauseated.

Eventually, I was unable to talk on the phone to anyone, not even to order a pizza or call my grandparents! I was so nervous about what anyone on the other end of the phone might think of me that it was practically paralyzing. I knew it seemed nutty; but I never told anyone how I felt. I was afraid of what they'd think of me.

Even though I was a good student, my grades took a nosedive because of my lack of class participation. I couldn't even take notes effectively, because I was so spazzed out about being in school! Every day, I just wanted to go home and forget about school. In fact, I tried so hard to forget about school that I refused to do my homework. At times, my fear was so overwhelming that I would lose a week of sleep. My parents knew I was having problems, but they just thought I was overly shy and would eventually outgrow it.

My worst attack was probably in ninth-grade Spanish, when I had to perform a skit. I was shaking violently and stumbling over my words and, by the time I got back to my desk, I was sobbing--everyone stared at me. It was humiliating. My teacher walked over and put her hand on my shoulder, but the attention only made me feel worse.

FACING THE FEAR

By sophomore year, the attacks were daily, and I still didn't know what they were. Although I felt safe when I was home, school was hell. Even standing in the cafeteria line was difficult. I was thinking that maybe I should start skipping lunch since I was so freaked by the crowds. That's when it hit me.

"This isn't right," I thought. "Nobody else acts this way!" After school that day, I logged on to the Internet and ran a search for "fear of people." I found a site called The Social Anxiety Network. It explained that telephones and authority figures trigger panic attacks in people with social anxiety. It also outlined how sufferers of this disorder have an irrational fear that others are thinking bad thoughts about them. I was so relieved. Finally, I had a name for my problem!

I printed the info out for my mom and, after reading it, she told me she felt terrible that I'd been in so much pain. Together, we decided I should see a psychologist. I was ready to do anything to get the help I knew I needed.

I was so fearful of the psychologist that I cried non-stop through the first several sessions. When I finally calmed down, I spilled about everything and told him I thought I had social anxiety disorder and that I was having panic attacks. The doctor agreed, prescribed medicine and taught me some relaxation techniques. I was skeptical because, by that point, I couldn't even stand in my front yard. But I knew I had to try.

After a couple months, I noticed I was crying less and felt more comfortable around other kids. When anyone said, "Hi, Brenna," I actually said "hi" back. Soon, I even made new friends.

ACCEPTING MYSELF

I was happy once I could talk to people without having panic attacks. I started a Web site for teens with similar probs (www.slingshot.to/teenanxiety). I was amazed how many came out of the woodwork! Suddenly, I wasn't alone.

Although my disorder isn't curable, it is manageable. It's been months since I've had a panic attack. I still feel anxious on occasion, like when someone giggles behind me. But it's not as nervewracking as before because I understand why I feel the way I do.

If you think you have social anxiety or panic attacks, talk to your parents, school counselor or other trusted adult. There's absolutely nothing wrong with seeing a therapist. It can only help you. I'm really proud I had the courage to seek help. I know I'll never be super outgoing, but that's not who I am. I'm really OK with just being me.

You can relate to Brenna? Be sure to read the box below to learn more about anxiety disorder and what to do about it.

RELATED ARTICLE: THE LOWDOWN ON ANXIETY DISORDERS

You know those butterflies you get in the pit of your stomach right before an oral report or a big game? Those butterflies are a sign of. anxiety, which is a normal and often beneficial emotional response to a variety of situations. But when anxiety becomes so frequent and intense that it interferes with daily life, it could be anxiety disorder. There are several types of anxiety disorders, three of which are summarized below. If you suspect you might have anxiety, check out www.freedomfromfear.org for information about anxiety or to find a doctor in your area specializing in anxiety. Don't miss its listing of registered health care professionals offering free anxiety screenings on May 7, 2a03, as part of National Mental Health Month.

SOCIAL ANXIETY DISORDER (Social Phobia)

SAD involves really intense feelings of worry, fear and dread when it comes to interacting with other people. Girls with SAD avoid social situations. SAD can induce panic attacks, which are intense episodes of fear that include sweating, blushing, muscle trembles, racing heart and a feeling that something is very wrong.

GENERALIZED ANXIETY DISORDER (GAD)

GAD is an ongoing feeling of intense worry, dread or impending doom that interferes with daily life. Girls with GAD worry about academic, social, athletic and artistic performance. Even f they've been successful in the past, there's a constant fear of failure, and they go to great lengths to perfect everything they do. Unsure of themselves, adolescents with GAD need constant praise, but even that rarely calms them.

PANIC DISORDER

A panic attack can be a one-time incident or, as in Brenna's case, they can become more and more frequent--panic disorder. Girls with panic disorder become so fearful of having another panic attack that they pullaway from school,, socializing and going about day-to-day stuff. But, there's no reason to live in fear. Panic attacks can be controlled through relaxation, deep breathing and medication.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:understanding panic attacks, anxiety disorder
Author:Ryan, Sandy Fertman
Publication:Girls' Life
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Words:1636
Previous Article:Look out for your outlook! (Quiz).
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