Health & Family

Long-distance running brought her confidence back after diagnosis of panic disorder

Melissa Mullaney (right), with Lee Doster-Ward, the YMCA spin cycle instructor and running coach who encouraged Mullaney to use running to find her way again.
Melissa Mullaney (right), with Lee Doster-Ward, the YMCA spin cycle instructor and running coach who encouraged Mullaney to use running to find her way again.

For five months, Melissa Mullaney didn’t leave her Gastonia home. Saddled by a diagnosis of panic disorder, and overwhelmed by fear she would suffer panic attacks in public in the mid-1990s, she chose the security of home over everything else.

Through cognitive behavioral therapy and the support of her husband, Mullaney got out of the house again, but it wasn’t until she started long-distance running nearly three years ago that she got her confidence back.

Mullaney, 44, ran her first half-marathon in March 2012 and on Saturday will team up with four other women from the South Gaston YMCA to run the relay event in the Novant Health Thunder Road marathon.

“I’ve learned that your body is capable of anything,” she said. “You just have to convince your mind of it.”

Mullaney, who works in the technology and operations group for Bank of America, will run the 5-mile fourth leg and hand the baton off for the anchor leg to Lee Doster-Ward, a YMCA spin cycle instructor and running coach. Doster-Ward encouraged Mullaney to use running to find her way again.

“I’ve seen her in a panic,” Doster-Ward said. “It’s hard to believe people have it until you know somebody that does. She was always negative. I’m a positive person. I’d have to say, ‘Melissa, you’ve got to be positive; you’re getting yourself in a rut. It ain’t going away, so you’ve got to find a way to deal with it.’ And (she has). She loves to run.”

Mullaney still works out of her home and relies on her husband and friends to do most of her driving, but she is out and about again. Here is her story, in her own words.

The challenge

“(My first panic attack) came on suddenly one evening, when I was driving my husband in downtown Charlotte to dinner to meet with friends. It almost felt as if I was having a stroke. One side of my head went cold and I had tingling on one side of body. (My husband drove) to the emergency room at Carolinas Medical Center. They couldn’t find anything clinically wrong and sent me home. After that, I went through a series of tests to rule out any seizure activity or tumor or neurological disorder. After months of testing they ruled all of that out. I was diagnosed with panic disorder.

“They explained that there’s a section of the brain responsible for the fight or flight syndrome, and in panic disorder patients, that center of the brain triggers erroneously. It causes the heart rate to increase. It may cause tingling and numbness. It may cause your breathing rate to increase, sweating, and the feeling like something is terribly wrong.”

How I did it

“I was obese and had hypertension. (But) I was longing to be active because I’d played sports all through elementary, middle school and high school.… I gradually got to where I felt safe running with my large dog through my neighborhood.”

Her husband encouraged her to start going to the South Gaston YMCA 5 miles from their home. She started taking spin classes there in 2011 from Doster-Ward, who encouraged her to join a running group.

“At first I was very resistant and said, ‘There’s no way I can run a half-marathon. I can’t even run 2 minutes without walking, much less 13.1 miles.’ She said, ‘I promise I will work with you and I will get you where you can do that.’ She did. She dedicated three or four nights a week and every Saturday (to helping me). She trained me to run a half-marathon within four months. And that was such a liberating experience, coming from being homebound to being able to run 13.1 miles.”

The result

Not only has Mullaney run multiple half-marathons, she began trail running – a task made even more complicated by the fact that she is legally blind in one eye, which affects her depth perception. And she’s traveling around the Southeast to run in these events.

She has lost weight, 100 pounds over time, and lowered her blood pressure. She still suffers panic attacks but said they last only two to three minutes, rather than 20 to 30. Mullaney got certified to teach spin-cycling and has substituted for Doster-Ward. She has also set a goal of completing a marathon.

“Running the half-marathon was something I never thought I could achieve, but as I saw that I could go do it, it put me in a whole new mindset of: ‘Well, if I can run this far, surely I can overcome the panic disorder.’”…

“I also found that long distance running boosted my mood, and I was able to go out and meet runners and hear their stories about struggles they had overcome or the obstacles that started them running. I began to see that people of all shapes, sizes, walks of lives with different stories and different obstacles were out there doing it.”

What I learned

“I never expected to have panic disorder, and when I first found out I did, it was devastating. But it actually has turned out to be, in an odd sort of way, a blessing, because through it I met Lee and I was able to begin running and to get out there and do the things which I probably would have never been prompted to do otherwise.”

Your story?

We’re looking to share stories about health and fitness, about overcoming obstacles and about discoveries you’re making on the road to Living Well. Send your suggestions to mystory@mcclatchy.com

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