Anxiety Disorders: More Than a Nervous Feeling

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Looking at Michelle Gillchrist, you'd never know anything is wrong. The petite blonde is eight months pregnant. She's wears cozy slipper-type shoes at work to be a little more comfortable as she balances a busy schedule as regional director of Senator Mike Dewine's Cleveland office.

Michelle Gillchrist: I suffer from panic attacks and when they get really, when they had gotten really bad in the past, it also developed into OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder.

Panic disorder and OCD are two of the most common types of anxiety disorders. The 37-year-old says she knew something was wrong when she started to make a lot of hospital visits while she was in law school.

Michelle Gillchrist: I was going to the emergency room a couple of times over a period of about five or six months with a very rapid heart rate, feeling like I thought I was having a heart attack, feeling out of breath and just feeling like I was dying.

Donald Malone: If you're having chest pain, it's hard to believe that this is all quote, "in your head," un-quote.

Dr. Donald Malone is head of Adult Primary Psychiatric Services at the Cleveland Clinic. He's also director of the foundation's Mood and Anxiety Disorder Clinics. He says there are many other kinds of anxiety disorders. For instance, social phobia where one may feel overwhelmed or embarrassed in social situations. Another variation leads to feelings of uneasiness in almost any environment.

Donald Malone: Somebody might have what we call Generalized Anxiety Disorder which are individuals that constantly are worried, tense, anxious. We all know people like this, who basically go through the day with recurrent worries and concerns about every day kinds of activities.

Malone says when symptoms of anxiety become so frequent and overwhelming that they prevent one from being able to carry out day to day activities and relationships, it's usually a sign there's a serious issue. Michelle Gillchrist says that's what happened to her.

Michelle Gillchrist: Sometimes it could be, you were standing in line at the grocery store and out of the blue you just felt an overwhelming feeling of "Oh my god, the world's closing in on me." And your mind is saying, there's no threatening environment that's surrounding you, you know, why is this happening?

Malone says doctors don't know exactly what causes anxiety disorders. With panic disorder, for example, it's often a chemical imbalance in the brain. Gillchrist says it was about 13 years ago that she was given hope. She happened to see a doctor describing her symptoms on a local TV news program and was compelled to seek help. After being properly diagnosed, she began taking Paxil and attended behavioral therapy sessions.

Michelle Gillchrist: I mean the medicine can only do so much on its own, but you yourself have to work your behavior and response reactions to what's going on in your life.

Dr. Malone says as Gillchrist experienced, the combination of medicine and psychotherapy is often the most successful treatment option. Behavior therapy is basically exposing yourself to the things, environments, or situations that make you anxious little by little, over and over, until your brain gets used to appropriately accommodating you to be able to handle them again. Choices for treatment don't end there.

Lisa Gallagher is a music therapist at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. As she plays the song Music of the Night, she begins to slow down the tempo. The technique often helps to relax her patients. Gallagher says, in many ways music therapy is similar to behavior therapy. She gives this example:

Lisa Gallagher: Where the individual would play the same song over and over again to help them relax and then it becomes such an automatic response with a great deal of practice that all they have to do is play that song and their body automatically relaxes.

Horticultural, art, and recreational therapies can also be used to help ease anxiety. While those things can be great aids, as Katherine Burns, chief clinical officer of Cuyahoga County's Community Mental Health Board, points out, not everyone can pay for them. She says it's difficult to simply get medication to those lacking health insurance.

Katherine Burns: Our local health and human services money is used to assist people right now that have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and after we try and reach those people, then there aren't funds left to try and do additional outreach.

Burns says it's not that services are denied, but cuts in funding have led to increasingly longer waiting lists. Michelle Gillchrist says another key to her recovery, something that's accessible to most people, was simply getting in touch with others going through the same thing. Support groups like those connected to organizations such as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill have local chapters throughout northeast Ohio's counties. And, Gillchrist says, educating others is just as important.

Michelle Gillchrist: It's very similar to being diagnosed with diabetes or a heart condition. And you wouldn't tell anybody "just snap out of it." It's something if you could snap out of, the hell that you go through in being in it, you would snap out of, if you could do that.

In Cleveland, Renita Jablonski, 90.3.

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