If you found your way to this post, it probably means that you, like me, struggle with fear. The first thing I want to tell you is that you’re not alone, you’re not going crazy and God is not disappointed with you.
Something that was and is really important on my own journey of healing is hearing other people's stories, so here is a bit of mine. I first started dealing with panic attacks in 2003 when my husband, Dave, and I graduated from college, got married, moved to another state and decided to pursue music as a career all within a span of one month. My mom was also dealing with severe depression at the time, and my body didn’t know how to handle it.
At first I was convinced I was dying of something because of the strange health symptoms I was experiencing. These physical reactions seemed to come out of nowhere and would scare the living daylights out of me! I would be sitting on the couch and all of a sudden I would notice my fingers starting to tingle and go numb, my heart would start pounding, I’d have trouble breathing, and I’d feel dizzy like I might pass out. It was terrifying.
On several occasions I went to the doctor to figure out what was wrong, and each time I was told I was incredibly healthy. I even had a heart monitor hooked up for 24 hours, but even that reported I was healthy as well. Instead of feeling relieved, I was frustrated that they couldn’t find the cause of my symptoms, and I was still convinced it was only a matter of days until I would be knocking on death’s door.
It wasn’t until I started doing my own research that I discovered I wasn’t dying, I was having panic attacks! I hadn’t even considered that possibility because I thought panic attacks were all psychological, but my symptoms weren’t just in my head. I was REALLY feeling strange symptoms in my body.
After I realized I was suffering from panic disorder, at first I was relieved that I wasn’t dying. Then I was faced with the challenge of figuring out how to make the awful panic attacks stop happening. To be honest, it’s been a really long, tough road. I've done a ton of work in the past with a great counselor who has encouraged me to let others know about my experience. She said that anxiety is often coupled with a lack of assertiveness, which makes sense to me. I am definitely NOT assertive by nature, so it's something I've been working on.
When I speak up and use my voice, it helps me get out of the mindset that I'm powerless and I can't handle the hardships of life. The more I've shared about my experience with anxiety, the less I feel trapped by it. I encourage you to find at least one safe person in your life to be your sounding board about your struggle. Let them know when you’re having a hard time. Sometimes even the act of speaking your fears out loud takes most of the power out of those fears.
In talking to my counselor, I also realized that I was under the impression that I was doing something wrong. I would think to myself, “If I could just pray more," or "If I was stronger then I could get better.” I discovered that even though God doesn't like to see me suffer, He is still using my anxiety and panic attacks to remind me that He is in control and that I can't do this on my own.
It is by His grace that I can face each day, and know in my heart that He is good, and He's going to take care of me. When I obsess about the future and all of the possible worst case scenarios, I’m expressing my desire for control. I want God to do what I think is best instead of trusting His plan for my life. I’m learning that the more I’m willing to let go of that control, the more peace I feel.
Here's a practical tip I've learned along the way: When you start having scary or anxious thoughts, it's helpful to really focus on them for a minute, and then counter them with a statement of truth. That way they're not always swimming around under the surface, causing you to feel unsettled.
For example, if your scary thought is, "What if I just keep getting worse and start to go crazy, etc.,” then just take a second to think (or say out loud), "God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind. I'm not crazy. The fear will pass.”
Or if you're like me and you swear that your latest cough is an indication that you’re dying of lung cancer, take a moment to tell yourself, “I am a healthy person. It’s very unlikely that I’m going to die from this cough. I can wait a few days to see if this gets worse, and if it does I can get medicine.”
Those are just a couple examples. The important thing is to remind yourself of what you know is TRUE. You can figure out scripture and truths that resonate with you. I know that thinking this way has really helped me. If you want to take this exercise one step further, it’s even more helpful to write it all down.
You can write down every scary thought, then underneath it you write the truth. It is a bit time-consuming, but it's really effective. When I did this, I eventually came to the place where I was so tired of writing down my scary, worried thoughts that I would stop them mid-thought so I wouldn’t have to pull out my notepad!
Several years ago, someone gave me a 15-week CD and workbook program called "Attacking Anxiety and Depression" by a woman named Lucinda Bassett. It was REALLY helpful for me, but the program costs several hundred dollars (Amazon has the best prices). If that's out of your price range, she wrote a book that summarizes a lot of the concepts in the program. The book is called "From Panic to Power" and it has tons of practical tools to help you overcome panic. The title is a little self-help-y, but there's a lot of good content in the book.
Lucinda talks about this in the book, but another that really helped me when I was starting to panic was to tell myself, "I know what this is. This is just a panic attack. It doesn't hurt, and it always goes away." She explains that the panic attacks will only go away when you're not afraid of them anymore (which is really frustrating sometimes!).
I eventually came to a point when I would have a panic attack and instead of being afraid of it, I was more annoyed that I had to wait for it to pass. From that point, the panic attacks began happening less and less until they eventually stopped. It’s interesting to note that Lucinda’s 15-week program was originally an infomercial. If I had known this at the start, I don’t think I would’ve pursued it, but I’m very glad I did! The Lord used the program to bring a tremendous amount of healing to me.
Anxiety and panic are still a part of my life, but I have the tools to face them now. I'm in a better place now than I have been in years. When I feel myself slipping into fear, I tell the people whom I love and trust, and then I ask for prayer. The key is to not let yourself get isolated in your fear. Isolation only makes you feel more trapped and panicked. It's REALLY hard to admit what's going on with you to your friends and family, but it's really important!
Remember to find at least one safe person in your life who you can be completely vulnerable with regarding panic (preferably more). I'm so thankful to say that I haven't had a full-blown panic attack for years. God is so good!
I hope all of this information is helpful for you. If you’re suffering from symptoms associated with panic, please know that you're not the only one experiencing these feelings, and you’re not a bad Christian.
When I was in the darkest time of my panic disorder, I was having multiple panic attacks every day (by the way, I’ve also heard people name them panic episodes instead of attacks because your body isn’t really attacking you). I actually have very few memories of those years because I was so focused on myself and what my body was feeling. I’m choosing to give myself grace for that, but at the same time I’m sad about all of the beauty, laughter and adventures I missed out on.
A life of fear is not the kind of life God wants for me and it’s not what He wants for you. God wants you to live a full life. That means it will be full of comfort and risk; adventure and monotony; joy and fear. Through it all, we need to remember that each day is a gift we did nothing to earn.
May you feel His perfect peace,
P.S. The songs on my album Painted Red were written while I was in the middle of my most difficult part of my struggle with anxiety.
P.P.S. I wrote my album Sound of a Living Heart as a way to explore what it means to thrive in my life rather than just living to survive another day. I hope the songs are an encouragement to you.