Into my thirties I was under pressure to perform, be ideal, help everyone, and control outcomes. It added up to lots of anxiety! I needed a lot of empathy from others and retraining of my mind and body. I did deep soul work in my own psychotherapy.
And I started learning how to actually live each day in Jesus’ easy yoke. I discovered that this kind of whole life, emotionally honest apprenticeship to Christ is what enables us to live in divine peace and grace — even when dealing with stressful challenges.
I tell this story and share the insights and spiritual disciplines that brought me great peace and grace in my book, Your Best Life in Jesus’ Easy Yoke: Rhythms of Grace to De-Stress and Live Empowered.
Recently, I was interviewed on the subject of anxiety and panic attacks for a book that a colleague is writing. The questions that she asked are ones that I’m often asked so I thought I’d pass on my thoughts to you.
“It Felt Like I Was Going to Die!”
Often people who have a panic attack rush to the emergency room, sure they’re having a heart attack. In “Calm Your Anxious Mind,” one of our most popular Soul Shepherding articles I describe a panic attack:
It’s frightening to experience a panic attack. You feel like you’re being smothered and can hardly breathe. Your heart pounds and hurts and you’re afraid you’re having a heart attack. You tremble or feel tingling or numbness in your hands and feet and you’re afraid you’re going to faint. You start sweating or have hot and cold flashes. You feel like you’re not all there; it all feels so unreal. And worst of all, you’re afraid that you’re going crazy and that you’re going to die!
Unfortunately, having a panic attack can greatly aggravate your anxiety. As I write in the same article:
Once someone has had a panic attack they may develop “anticipatory anxiety,” in which they’re afraid of having another attack. Of course, this makes the anxiety worse! Panic Disorder also can become associated with Agoraphobia. People with Agoraphobia restrict themselves to “safe places” because of a fear of having a panic attack in a public place and not being able to escape.”
Probably You Feel Anxious at Times
Hopefully you’ve never been through a panic attack, but probably you’ve felt anxious. Many people are held back in their lives by anxiety. Problems with anxiety are the most common mental-emotional disorder for American adults today. About one in eight people experience debilitating anxiety. (According to the National Institute of Mental Health.)
In Your Best Life in Jesus’ Easy Yoke I explain, “Anxiety is a control problem.” (p. 23)
To be anxious is like being a bird that’s caught in a net and flutters about wildly trying to get free, rather than relaxing and simply walking through a hole in the net! When we’re anxious we’re trying too hard to get what we want: feel admired, be strong, look successful, and not have any vulnerable emotions!
But freedom comes in the opposite direction. We need to be aware of our personal emotions and needs, receive the empathy that calms us down, and learn to rely on God’s grace one day at a time.” (p. 25)
Why Would I Have a Panic Attack When I’m Calm?
I find that many people who struggle with worry and anxiety don’t pay much attention to their emotions until it takes over their mind, or takes a toll on their physical health, or they have a panic attack.
When we internalize stress over time we become anxious and may eventually have a panic attack. Many people don’t understand that anxiety is a secondary emotion — we only feel it when we’ve been repressing other primary emotions. As we go through life we all experience stress, whether from conflict, challenges, being mistreated, or just doing too much. If we keep denying our emotions that are associated with stress, like fear, anger, or sadness, then they get internalized in our body as anxiety.
Panic is what we feel when we’re intensely afraid. But Panic Disorder is more than that. It’s basically fear of fear. It’s an escalating fear of becoming debilitated by fear. We all experience fears, triggered by various challenges, threats, and hurts. But if we don’t seek empathy from God and others to help us accept and care for our fearful, insecure self we get in trouble. When we deny fearful emotions, and related feelings of anger, and refuse to be vulnerable with emotionally safe and strong people we start imploding with the combustible emotion-energy.
Eventually like a volcano we may erupt! That’s what a panic attack is — it’s a type of eruption!
The anxiety explosion often seems to come out of nowhere, perhaps triggered by something little, or maybe there is no apparent stressor. Whether it’s the last straw that finally breaks the camel’s back or the chronic internalizing of stress and repressing of emotion it makes for an anxious pressure cooker that eventually boils over and blows it’s lid.
As you can see, the problem with panic disorder existed long before the anxiety episode. It usually goes back to years of anxiousness, repressing fear and anger, trying to control situations and people, not respecting your limits, and not receiving sufficient empathy and soothing for emotional distress.
Tragically, panic disorders become self-reinforcing. It’s so upsetting to experience one that we do whatever we can to avoid another one! This usually means more self-imposed pressure to repress emotion and avoid situations that might trigger anxiety or panic.
But these avoidance strategies only make our emotion problem worse. They shrink our emotional range and they shrink our world in which we feel safe. This weakens us and makes us susceptible to having another panic attack.
How Do I Make a Panic Attack Go Away?
If you’ve ever had a panic attack that’s exactly how you feel! You want your racing heart and mind to stop! You want to crawl out of your skin and run away!
But the attitude of making the feeling go away gets to the heart of the problem. When we try to make uncomfortable emotions go away we’re repressing them. They don’t really go away. They go into our unconscious mind, which is actually our bodies.
So we get all this fear trapped in our chest and our gut — or maybe our big toes! — and eventually we come undone, worn down by chronic anxiety, fears racing out of control, and becoming afraid of any more fear. Fear of fear is panic. With all this intense dread taking over our bodies we break down, or rather, break out, with an anxiety attack.
One surprisingly effective strategy for dealing with a panic attack is to give in. That’s right, just let yourself have it! Instead of fighting you ride it and tell yourself, ‘I’ve felt extremely anxious before and it won’t kill me.’
Then start breathing and praying. Or imagine being in a beautiful peaceful scene. Better yet, fix your thoughts to a comforting Bible passage, like Psalm 23. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…” Imagine the lovely, peaceful scenes. Imagine the Lord Jesus as your Shepherd caring for you.
The real key is what you do when you’re on the other side of the panic attack. Resolve to find a counselor, pastor, or soul friend who will empathize with you and help you to feel and put words to your distress, fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, and the like. Ask to be listened to and validated. Ask for tender-hearted care. Learn how to absorb and metabolize empathy until it gets inside you, helping you to trust that this is how God loves and cares for you 24 x 7!
Along the way, you’ll have to deal with some emotional pain and neediness. You’ll also have to get to know you’re Internal Saboteur that sneakily resists or spoils the empathy you need, telling you things like, “Don’t be so emotional… That’s weak and needy… You’re just going to get hurt… You can’t trust people this much… Toughen up and get through this on your own…”
You have to fight off those lies and learn to ask for and accept the grace you need.
If you do that soul work authentically and for long enough then you won’t have any more panic attacks.
One more thing. In the beginning you may need some anti-anxiety medication to re-train your brain. The things I’ve described can also re-train your brain, but it takes awhile.
For Additional Help With Anxiety and Panic
Your Best Life in Jesus’ Easy Yoke offers an inspiring, practical, and powerful approach for dealing with stress, anxiety, and fear. I guide you step-by-step in a process of an authentic apprenticeship to Christ Jesus in which you bring your challenges and insecurities to the Lord — through Scripture, soul friends, and prayer — learning how to walk with him and work with him in the Kingdom of God. It’s a plan for whole life healing and transformation.
“Soul Talks” Podcast
Join Bill and Kristi in “Delighting in Streams of God“, as they drink in from the happy river of Psalm 46! We can bring our stress, family conflict, loneliness, or busyness into the loving presence of God and find refuge. The word (message) of God’s grace to us through Christ is ministered through Scripture and soul talk.