My first panic attack happened last year on an airplane over to Madrid. Coupled with sickness, little sleep, and a baby who wouldn’t be consoled, my mind and body reacted in a way I had never experienced before. This experience began a breaking in my soul that I thought would lead to complete ruin, but God knew would end in restoration. I used to have a hard time relaying how I felt during those moments. As God has continued His restoration process in my soul, He has brought a greater freedom in telling people my story without the veil of shame covering my face. Over the past year, He has taught me that His grace is greater than our lowest moments. I am going to share just a tiny glimpse into that story today with two goals:
1. To comfort those of you suffering from panic and anxiety
2. To encourage you with the truth that Jesus is with you, you are not alone, and this is not forever.
Prior to our trip to Spain, we’d been going nonstop. I had been traveling that spring speaking at various girls and women events and my husband was busy with his role at our church. To add to our already busy schedule, we had a one year old (need I say more?). I wore my “supermom” cape every day, well, at least I tried to. I acted like I had it “all together”and like I could do it all, because the things I was doing were “good” and for the kingdom. I was sharing the hope of Jesus with women, pouring out my heart to college girls, and even going to another country to share the gospel with those who had not heard. Yet, in the midst of all of these seemingly “good” things, I lacked a nearness to Jesus. I lacked that sweet “first love” that I once had with Him. Journaling and spending time with Him just to be refreshed and in His presence was something I considered a luxury that I didn’t have during that season. All of these things led to my breaking, and ultimately to my remaking. As always, hindsight is 20/20.
The day we left for our mission trip I woke up with a queasy stomach. I had been having stomach issues for several months and just ignored them and masked my nausea with excitement for the trip. Fast forward to twelve hours later when we were on an airplane with an unconsolable baby. Couple the nausea with feeling claustrophobic and you have the makings of a panic attack. My son fell asleep not long before we actually landed (nine hours into the flight), and once I was able to make my way off the airplane I went straight to the bathroom hoping to find relief and be able to breathe. What I found was fear. I was so sick, so anxious, so tired, and so desperate to get back to the U.S. that I felt paralyzed. My hands were numb and I got physically sick…right in front of our team and passersby.
The following days of our trip my body tried to recover but struggled. I can honestly say that these were some of my lowest moments, more of which would come later in the year when I had my gallbladder taken out (the culprit to much of the nausea I had experienced those months earlier as well as on the trip). I didn’t want to admit my anxiety and the trauma that I had walked through and went right back into my fast pace of life at home after the trip. I pushed forward, even hosting an exchange student in our home for a month and speaking at a few more events. What I neglected to do in my busy schedule was to listen to my body’s need for recovery. I ignored the Lord’s continual prompting through my fears and worries that I needed to slow down, to get well, to rest in Him. Pride kept me going, but pride also led to my downfall that happened in early October of last year (Proverbs 16:18).
Panic Attacks + God’s Grace
The moments of panic that I experienced in Madrid continued to replay in my mind for months after the events conspired to the point where it was crippling my ability to mother, work, and even go places. I realized that Satan had a stronghold when I no longer wanted to obey God’s calling to write Bible studies and teach the Word. Fear paralyzed my heart and convinced me to believe that I would suffer the same way I did on that mission trip if continued to obey God. Imprisoned by fear for months, I was eventually forced to take a month off from all of life to recover. In those moments where I felt like life was at its darkest, like I would never recover, like I was marred and ruined forever, God met me. The panic attacks were my body expressing a need: I needed to stop, to recalibrate, and to recover. Those panic attacks were actually God’s grace to me in my life.
If you’ve suffered from severe anxiety or panic, you know exactly what I mean when I talk about crippling, out of control worry that affects not only your mind but your body’s ability to function. I had never experienced anything like that before and was unwilling to admit what the problem was for months. I wanted to just get past my fears in my own strength. But as I started reading books and seeing a Christian counselor, I realized that the enemy had, in a sense, rewired my brain and body to resort to panic in moments that were actually safe in an attempt to protect myself from harm. Anxiety and panic were misplaced fear. Ultimately, the enemy placed me in a cage that hindered me from living the full, abundant life that Jesus came to give (John 10:10).
When we were in Madrid and I was laying in bed, staring out at the historic buildings surrounding us, listening to the people below and horns honking outside, God led me to Lamentations 3:22-24, a passage I had read countless times before. It wasn’t until I was completely desperate that these verses actually made sense. In this passage, we learn that God will never let anything in this life overwhelm us to the point of ruin. Ultimately, it is His grace that overwhelms us and engulfs us in His love. When it feels like we are drowning, we can know that the life jacket of grace is always within reach. Why? Because His mercies are always new. Because His grace is greater than our lowest of lows, and because His love is deeper than our breaking points.
God would not let my panic, fear, or the unknown consume my life. Even though it felt like I was sinking, He wouldn’t let me drown. The panic that my soul and body experienced last year was God’s gift of grace reminding me that I am limited, but He is unlimited. I am broken, but He is the Great Physician. When I am drowning in fear, sorrow, or anxiety, His new mercies overwhelm me like a hurricane of peace.
Panic Attacks + God’s Plan of Attack
If you’re in the thick of battle right now, you’re probably wondering to yourself, what now? If there’s hope, how do I grasp it? Is there really freedom? The answer is a resounding YES. Yes, you can be free. Yes, there is hope. Yes, there is healing. Yes, what God has said is true and powerful and right. In my own moments of panic and anxiety, here are some things that I’ve learned to start doing to reclaim my thoughts:
- BREATHE. This seems like a given, but in moments of panic our heart rate rises and breathing becomes shallow (thus making panic and clear thinking worse). Make it your first priority to take long, slow deep breaths. Earlier this year I wrote a Bible study called “Breathe”. This study walks the reader through 40 days of prayer in the Psalms. The whole premise for the study is that prayer is like breathing in the life of the believer. Training ourselves to pause, breathe, and pray in moments of worry and anxiety is key to following God’s plan of attack. Even David struggled with anxiety and panic. In Psalm 55:4-8 we read his own story: “My heart is in anguish within me; the terror of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelmed me. And I say, ‘Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter from the raging wind and tempest.'” When you go through moments of anxiety, breathe first and pray.
- ADDRESS + ACCEPT: David addressed his feelings. He didn’t chide himself for feeling worried and anxious. He addressed and accepted how he was feeling. I’ve learned that ignoring my anxiety is not the way to get past it. I have to accept that I am feeling anxious and bring it to the Lord. David moves on in Psalm 55:16 to say: “But I call to God, and the LORD will save me.” In the midst of his anxiety, he called to God. Ignoring our feelings is trying to save ourselves. But accepting them and our frailty then bringing them before the Lord for help is the way to freedom. You’re not a bad Christian because you have anxiety, sister. Remember that. Rather, allow your moments of panic and worry to lead you back to the cross and find your shelter in Him alone.
- REPLACE LIES WITH TRUTH: This is where it gets good. We’ve got to address how we feel AND then move forward with truth. Anxiety is caused by a belief or fear. Rather than letting those fears guide our feet, we need to address them, name them, and replace them with the Truth. I’ve found in my own life that this is best done through talking out loud to a trusted friend or counselor. Speaking lies out loud takes their power away. But even more, we have to replace the lies we are believing about ourselves, our situations, and God with the Truth that brings freedom. (Note: I also have found that journaling is KEY. Talk to God openly and honestly about what you are going through and pray the Word. If you need help, pray the Psalms or even just start by writing them out. I love Psalm 55 for starters.)
- GET MOVING: Don’t just sit in your anxiety and panic. Get moving. Go on a walk. Serve someone and take your mind off of yourself. Turn on worship music and hum or sing to the tune. When we get moving and go forward in God’s grace and strength, we are proving to our anxiety that we won’t stay stuck in it. That is God’s plan of attack.
- SEEK WISE COUNSEL: When battling anxiety and panic attacks, we must remember that the anxiety is a symptom of underlying fear, doubt, or those ever so common “what if” questions that plague the human heart. Seeking out a wise, Christian counselor to get to the bottom of the anxiety is crucial. Many Christians are embarrassed to see a counselor, mainly because we place unprecedented pressure on ourselves and each other to “get it together” in our own strength. However, God sees this differently. He is the Creator of wisdom and knows that we often need someone on the outside of our struggles to help us see truth and move past them. (For more on what Scripture says about seeking wise counsel see Proverbs 12:15, 13:10, 15:31-33, 24:6)
Your breaking is not for your destruction, but for your remaking. God won’t leave you where you are; He is taking you somewhere. You aren’t broken forever, and you aren’t alone. There’s hope and healing and it is found in Jesus. He is with you and has never left you. When anxiety and panic comes, remember God’s plan of attack, and know that He is walking through it with you and will always bring you through to freedom.