It started with a panic attack. While driving, the student’s heart began to pound. She could hardly breathe. She thought she was going crazy. Soon the attacks became more frequent. She grew increasingly fearful, afraid even to drive to campus. Her world was closing in fast.

Fortunately, she sought help from Dr. Yujuan Choy, staff psychiatrist at the Student Health Center’s Mental Health Clinic. Choy is an expert in evaluating and treating anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, generalized anxiety, social anxiety and post-traumatic stress syndrome. She’s dedicated her career to easing other people’s fears.

“So many people have an anxiety disorder that is unrecognized and untreated,” she says. Anxiety disorder is the most common psychiatric illness in the United States, she says, occurring in almost one-third of the population. Specific phobias such as claustrophobia or fear of heights afflict 12.5 percent of the population.

“What drew me to the field is the desire to relieve the distress that patients experience,” Choy says. “People who have panic disorder believe they’re dying or going crazy during a panic attack. They don’t know the disorder is causing the symptoms, and it’s highly treatable. Within a few weeks or months, they can feel so much better. Treatment can change someone’s life.”

Choy specializes in treatments involving medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which she used to cure the student of her panic disorder. As part of the therapy, Choy had the student create a “fear hierarchy” – a list of what scared her, from driving on slow surface streets to merging on high-speed freeways. Choy then helped her tackle one fear at a time, teaching the student her symptoms were temporary – and bearable – as she worked her way up to the scariest situation. After seven sessions, the panic attacks stopped.

“She was able to get her life back,” she says.

Choy received her medical degree from Cornell University in 2000 and joined UCI’s Mental Health Clinic in July 2006. She was featured in the Feb. 19 issue of Psychiatry Weekly after she published a comprehensive review of the treatment of phobias inClinical Psychology Review.

“Dr. Choy is an outstanding addition to our psychiatry staff,” says Thomas Parham, assistant vice chancellor of counseling and health services, which oversees the clinic. “She brings a depth of training and skill in adolescent and young adult psychiatry.”

At the clinic, an interdisciplinary team of psychiatrists, psychologists and master’s-level therapists offer evaluation and treatment of depression, anxiety and other psychological problems in the campus community.

“It’s gratifying to help college students at this stage of their life,” Choy says. “We’re often their first exposure to mental health, so we want the experience to be positive.”