I was on my day off, relaxing with my wife in our living room, checking Facebook on my laptop…when all of a sudden, I began to feel a little weak. Next, I got light-headed and a bit dizzy. I remember thinking, “I feel really weird right now.” Then, my heart started to pound and it got hard to breathe. I stood up and thought I was going to pass out. I looked at my wife and said, “I think something’s wrong with me. I need you to take me to the hospital…right now.”
Immediately, she asked what was wrong. I began to explain to her the symptoms and she immediately responded that it was probably an anxiety attack, because she used to struggle with them as well. To me, it felt like I was having a heart attack, so clearly she was wrong. So, we hopped into our little light blue Fiat Punto that was held together with zip-ties, and drove across town to the hospital.
The doctor checked my vitals, hooked me up to numerous machines to monitor my heart, and asked me a bunch of questions. In the end, the doctor was convinced that I simply had a bad anxiety attack since everything else was normal. I was somewhat relieved, but if you've ever experienced an attack, that relief lasts just long enough until you begin to think of all the worst-case scenarios. Maybe the doctors are wrong. Maybe I had a minor stroke. Maybe I have a tiny little tumor. Maybe I’m getting diabetic. Maybe there’s a parasite growing on my brain slowly converting me into a zombie.
What if I’m actually right about this and all the professionals are wrong?
If you’ve experienced severe anxiety, then you know what I’m talking about. It seems like a never-ending downward spiral of paralyzing fear. In the moment, it feels like you’re going crazy and that it’s always going to be this way. Thankfully, feelings aren’t always reliable guides to truth. I’ve found in my experience that it won’t always be this way. Anxiety, though real and complex, can be dealt with. I don’t want to say that there will always be 100% recovery from any and all symptoms and bouts of anxiety, but I believe that there are several ways that we can begin to recover and to live and function in the midst of this struggle. The following are five ways that God used to help me deal with severe anxiety attacks…
1. Go to the doctor.
What’s so scary about anxiety attacks is that they display similar symptoms to heart attacks. If you've never had an anxiety attack before and you feel any sudden weird pains in your chest, light-headedness, dizziness, or heart palpitations, don’t hesitate. Go to the doctor or ER to make sure. More than likely, it’s just anxiety (especially if you’re young), but hearing that data from a professional is helpful when you need to take your worse-case-scenario-thoughts captive later on.
Another possible benefit is being referred to a psychiatrist for medicine if your anxiety is so severe that you need your mind to get balanced enough so you can begin processing your anxiety with someone. Medicine wasn’t helpful for me, so I got off it pretty quick, but I know several people who were helped tremendously by it.
2. Educate yourself on the nature of panic attacks.
One of the most helpful things I did was read a book entitled, Understanding Panic Attacks and Overcoming Fear, by Dr. Roger Baker. A dear friend handed it to me when I was constantly having multiple attacks a day (about 5–10), usually brought on by anxiety about my anxiety. Books that educate you on what is happening in your body normalizes it and makes you realize that you aren’t losing your mind. It was profoundly helpful to see that my symptoms were signs that my body was trying to protect itself. This gave me the mental clarity to recognize what was going on in my body when I began to have symptoms, which lowered my anxiety.
3. Get counseling.
If you begin to have severe anxiety, a natural tendency is to think that you are simply anxious about something in the future. While that may sometimes be the case, I was surprised to learn that anxiety attacks can generally be traced to major life changes or traumatic events that occurred in the recent past. Think about the past 8–12 months (before the onset of panic) and ask yourself if there was anything especially traumatic or stressful. Getting a good counselor or therapist who can help you navigate your past and give your anxiety context is crucial to healing. I learned that unprocessed transitions and trauma are fertile ground for anxiety and panic to grow.
For instance, I didn't realize how crazy my life had been in the recent past, and how little I had processed it: I graduated seminary, moved to a new country, experienced the pain of losing a family member, began a brand new job that blurred the lines between home and work life, and other factors. Realizing and exploring those events with a trained individual was extremely helpful and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
4. Memorize and Pray Scripture
One of the worst things about anxiety attacks is that it turns all of your attention inward. Because you are constantly monitoring and checking on how you’re feeling, it becomes harder to focus on other things and other people. We get consumed with thoughts like: How am I feeling? Is there another attack coming on? Will I ever become sane again? I feel so scared. I feel alone in this. Nothing will ever be the same again. I guess I’ll be in a mental hospital the rest of my life.
During the initial weeks of battling anxiety attacks, I met with one of my pastors who knew what was going on. He did one of the best things for me…he gave me a list of passages that he wanted me to meditate on. Far from it feeling like a cheap fix, the passages he shared with me all took on a more significant meaning to me, since I was desperate for relief. All of a sudden, passages that communicated God’s presence in the midst of scary situations became very real.
I began to commit the beginning of Isaiah 43 to memory:
1 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
One of the worst times I found for my anxiety was at night as I was trying to sleep, so I would simply recite and pray through this passage over and over and over again until I fell asleep. The Holy Spirit calmed me down through this passage as I reflected on the amazing truth that God is faithfully present with his people during really scary and dangerous times. This was incredibly powerful, since when we’re dealing with severe anxiety, the biggest temptation is to think that we are all alone.
Memorize a passage and dwell on the truth of it. I promise the Holy Spirit will use it.
5. Get back to doing normal things.
For the first couple of weeks of my anxiety attacks, my boss took work off of my plate so I could recover. While it was a good thing, I began to develop agoraphobia. I feared leaving the house, because what would happen if I had an attack in the middle of town, or in the middle of the grocery store, or doing other normal things?
One of the worst things about suffering from panic attacks is that it has a way of paralyzing and crippling you from doing normal things, which oftentimes leads to feelings of hopelessness and depression. I remember a breakthrough moment for me was when I was afraid to drive to my first counseling session across town (10 minutes away) because I was worried that I’d have a panic attack while I was driving and get into an accident. Nevertheless, I mustered up a tiny bit of courage, got in the car, and made it there without having a panic attack. It was a small thing, but at that moment, it felt huge. It gave me courage to try other normal things again.
If you feel paralyzed, a helpful way to get back to normal is to set at least 1 goal each day that you’re going to attempt something normal that you used to do: go to the grocery store, go for a walk or jog, play a sport with a friend, go to church, etc. These small victories will begin to snowball into larger ones until you realize you’re getting your life back into a normal routine.
[A helpful suggestion to consider as you’re deciding whether or not to do something normal again is to ask the question, “What’s the worst that will happen?” More than likely, it’s not going to end it death. Usually the worst case scenario is that you’ll have a panic attack, and then keep going. Even though it’s scary, it’s better to try, rather than remain paralyzed and develop agoraphobia.]
Everyone is unique in what has contributed to their panic attacks, so recovery will look different for each person. I’m not a therapist or a psychiatrist, so I can only speak to what was helpful in my own experience.
As for my recovery, I’m having a hard time remembering the last time I had an attack. I’ve probably had 3 or 4 little attacks in the last two years (the last one being at least over a year ago), as compared with initially having 5–10 severe attacks a day. I’m thankful to God that even though I still deal with anxiety, I live a life mostly free from panic attacks at this point. Even better than that, I can honestly look back and see how God was with me and how he was stripping me away from my false sense of control and power. Though I wouldn’t want to relive those moments of panic, I am thankful that the Lord allowed me to experience what it looks like to depend on him for every breath and every moment of sanity.
If you’re currently experiencing panic attacks, I hope and pray that this list will get you started in a good direction and that the Lord will encourage you and give you hope as you remember that he is with you in this dark place, and as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12, his power is made perfect in your weakness.