Panic attacks are terrifying! Redundant? True, but only to make the point that panic attacks are bad, BAD MOJO! First you think, “I’m going to die!” Then, you think, “Oh my God! I’m not going to die and I’m going to have to live like this forever!!!” I know because about 20 years ago, I was having panic attacks.
The Summer of 1992
Getting married, moving away from home for the first time, and looking for new friends was more than enough to generate major anxiety in me but to top it off, I had some serious health problems. About 6 months before I moved, I was at a health club with a buddy. First, I did 30 minutes of intense aerobic exercise and went straight to weight lifting. After the first machine, my fingers were tingling. After the second machine, the tingling started moving into my hands and arms. I stood up to walk it off but the tingling kept spreading! I walked quickly to the desk and told the person there to call an ambulance just as all the muscles in my body started to contract. In about 30 seconds, I was curled in a fetal position on a chair, every muscle straining against…nothing? Even the muscles in my tongue contracted so that my speech was slurred! I thought I was having a stroke!
By the time the ambulance arrived, the muscles had relaxed and I was feeling better. I didn’t take the ambulance ride but instead went straight to the doctor who ran every test he had; EKG, EEG, blood tests, the works! I think he even hooked me up to the machine that goes, “Ping.” Wasn’t I lucky? And the results…? Nothing. There’s nothing wrong. But, something had been very, VERY wrong and I had no answers. So, every time my heart rate started to increase, I began to wonder, “Is this it? Is it going to happen again?!” 6 months later, I was feeling anxious all the time, my heart was racing, and I was freaking out at the slightest provocation. I was having full blown panic attacks. I have vivid memories of the night I was reduced to lying in bed in a fetal position, violently trembling all over, and unable to explain to myself or anyone else why this was happening or what was going on. Wild, uncontrollable thoughts were shooting through my brain. I believed I was losing my mind. That night, I decided to see a psychiatrist.
The best thing the psychiatrist did was let me know that I was not going crazy. These were panic attacks. But, the next thing he said was that in order to have therapy sessions together, he was going to have to prescribe medication to which I would get physically addicted. Insurance would only cover medication management. REALLY DOC? I’m here to try to get control back over my life and you’re telling me that the only way to get there is through addiction? I told him I wanted to see if I could manage on my own but if I couldn’t, I would be back.
I had just started working as the pastoral intern at University United Methodist Church. On one of my supervising pastor’s bookshelves was a book on Psalm 23. The author broke down the meaning of the psalm line by line in vivid detail. The image the psalm describes is the place where God takes care of every need we have, where we are absolutely safe, secure, and can rest in utter peace. Even in “the valley of the shadow of death, I am not afraid because you are with me.” Boy did I know the valley of the shadow of death! Panic attacks were taking me there repeatedly!!! Whenever I could feel my anxiety start to rise, I would sit down, close my eyes and repeat the psalm over and over again until I was in that place where God was taking care of every need I had. I was safe and could rest. Gradually, the fear lost its grip on me. After six months, the panic attacks were gone. My faith had made me well.
How You Can Beat Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Now, I am not saying that Psalm 23 is a panacea to manage anxiety. Instead, here are the primary take-aways from my experience:
- When you need help, get help. I went to the psychiatrist because I needed help, and, you better believe I would have gone back if my efforts had been ineffective.
- A simple technique when feeling anxious is to breathe: Inhale through your nose and count to 4. Start with your diaphragm/stomach, filling your lungs from bottom to top . Hold your breath counting to 7 seconds exhale through pursed lips, counting to 8. Deep breathing helps to relax quickly, and reduces blood pressure. Deep breathing has even been shown to help those with insomnia fall asleep when done four times in a row, four times a day. This video from Therapist Aid is a slightly different technique but demonstrates the gist of deep breathing:
- When I was having panic attacks, I didn’t feel like I could do deep breathing. My heart was racing and I couldn’t catch my breath. In order to get to the place where I could do deep breathing, I needed something else. This is where sitting down, closing my eyes and going in my mind to a place of safety and tranquility really helped.
Personalize the Technique
So, the question is, “Where is your safe place?” Do the stories of your faith include a place where God protects you and keeps you safe? Or, can you think of a time or place in your life where you were in “the total comfort zone,” where you were safe, content, completely at peace and all was right in the world? Once you have identified your safe place, when you are feeling anxious, find a quiet place, close your eyes and go there in your mind. Picture all the details. What does it look like? What can you hear? Are there any particular smells? How does your body feel? Wallow in the detail until you are fully and completely in that space where you are safe, content and at peace.