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She was going home on the subway when she suddenly felt sweaty and light-headed. Her fingers tingled, her heart pounded. She thought she was going to have a heart attack.

She went to the hospital emergency room. They did an EKG and a blood test and told her nothing was wrong. She felt better. But three days later, it happened again.It hit every time she got on the subway. So her husband started riding with her, and she was OK. But now it even happens sometimes when she leaves the house, so she's not going out much without her husband.

It's a familiar story that Dr. Terence Ketter hears from people who suffer from panic disorder, or unexpected and unprovoked panic attacks.

But Ketter, senior staff fellow with the National Institute of Mental Health, came to Greensboro on Thursday with a positive prognosis for anxiety disorders such as panic disorder.

The past decade has brought significant advances in knowledge, treatment and destigmatization of a prevalent but often misunderstood and under-treated problem, Ketter told the annual meeting of the Mental Health Association in Greensboro.

``Anxiety disorders are some of the most treatable disorders we have,' he said.

Fifteen percent of the population have some sort of anxiety disorder at some time, Ketter said. It's more common in women and usually arrives in the second or third decade of life. It can lead to major depression. It may decrease in middle age.

A medical evaluation, diagnosis and early treatment can make the difference.

``Giving them a diagnosis, giving them an evaluation and telling them what could be done is a very liberating experience for people with anxiety disorders,' Ketter said.

They can be treated with educational and behavioral therapy and with the type of medications called benzodiazepines, such as Xanax.

Antidepressants, such as Prozac, also have been a popular treatment. But it takes a few weeks for them to work, and often the patient feels worse before feeling better.

``With adequate treatment, victims of panic disorder should be able to lead a completely normal life,' Ketter said.


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