I remember feeling totally helpless. The sense of panic was so suffocating I could barely breathe. Short, tight breaths made it impossible to maintain even the appearance of suitability on the job while I was in the grip of the panic attack. And I was, in fact, totally unsuitable: I couldn’t think, couldn’t plan, couldn’t make decisions – all necessary capabilities for the Director of Finance of a $20,000,000 non-profit arts organization.
With what little physical control I could exercise over my body during these attacks, I would quietly leave my desk and move to an unoccupied floor of the building, to pace the length of the empty corridor until I could still my heartbeat, regain minimal control of my head, and calm the fear in my breast enough to return to my department and finish my work day. Sometimes it took the better part of an hour to recover enough control to return to my desk, and I was acutely aware that if I weren’t the department head — and my immediate supervisor out of sight due to the remote location of my department — I could not have continued to find temporary escape from my panic in this way.
This pattern went on for weeks, during which I faced each new workday with increasing dread. Trying to “talk myself down” from this irrational panic on my own was not working; in fact it seemed constantly to be getting worse. Eventually it dawned on me that I might be clinically depressed, and needed to get professional help.
Fortunately, my wife was a psychologist, as was our best friend, so although neither of them could treat me due to our relationships they both understood the severity of my symptoms and our friend was able to suggest another colleague with whose work he was well acquainted and whom he recommended as very likely to be a good fit for me.
Without that recommendation, I might not have had the confidence to do the work I needed with a therapist. A knowledgeable recommendation from a trusted professional is invaluable, and proved crucial for me in becoming able to move ahead quickly toward regaining control over my life – not total healing in one fell swoop, as witness the fact that I have returned to this therapist at several crisis points in my life since, but sufficient improvement to allow me to return to work, and to my family, as a suitably functioning member of both.
If someone experiencing debilitating psychological symptoms doesn’t have family members or friends with this background, well acquainted with local psychologists, his or her primary care physician (PCP) — the “family doctor” — should normally be a reliable resource to tap for recommendations. I strongly recommend discussing symptoms with the PCP, and requesting a referral to suitable psychologists for talk therapy (ideally three candidates, to allow selection of one that feels like a good fit).
In most of the United States, the therapist selected, or the PCP, might also recommend a psychiatrist to prescribe medications if those prove necessary. This division of roles is prevalent in the United States (as of this writing, although there are active proposals to afford prescription privileges to suitably trained psychologists. I don’t know how these responsibilities are arranged in other countries.