Overcoming Panic Attacks
The first time it happened, I was 21. I was on the way to pick up a friend from the airport during a rainstorm when my heart suddenly skipped a beat.
That was strange, I thought, my heart now beating normally.
But it kept happening. Over the next few months and at the most random times, my heart would noticeably skip beats. Over the course of a year, the palpitations became paired with other symptoms including dizziness, rapid heartbeats, extreme feelings of hot or cold, and the wild feeling that I might pass out. I felt as though my body was spinning out of control. One time I had to ask a passenger to drive while I curled up in the backseat of my own car, trying to calm my racing heart. After that, I felt afraid to drive on the interstate.
These episodes persisted, so I scheduled a doctor's appointment. I was diagnosed with neurocardiogenic syncope, which causes heart palpitations and fainting. My anxiety level was heightened by my irregular heartbeats and panic attacks were my body's response. My doctor sent me home with some antidepressant samples that could help both my heart condition and my panic disorder.
Should I Take Medication?
Though many people feel better as a result of taking an antidepressant, I feared it would steal my personality. I didn't want to lose my ability to really laugh or truly cry; I feared turning into a zombie, with a glazed look or a blank stare. Although my doctor explained that the right medication in the right dosage would help me feel normal, I still struggled with the idea of taking medication.
Whenever I started to panic, I would try to "get a grip," calm myself, and pray for God to take it away.
Why should I depend on something other than God for my recovery? I thought. I should be able to get over these irrational fears and beat panic naturally.
But I never felt in control of my body. Anxious symptoms only led to more anxious thoughts, which cycled back into more panic. My body was obviously suffering; I wasn't eating enough and friends became concerned about how thin I looked. "Toughing it out" just wasn't working.
My fiancé, Matt, felt leery about the idea of me taking an antidepressant. He'd previously worked at a youth correctional facility where he saw teenagers with serious emotional and mental issues take antidepressants. He couldn't understand why his once calm and reasonable fiancée would need to take the same pill that those troubled kids swallowed freely.
Over time, as Matt continued to watch me struggle with anxiety, he became more understanding. But he also never backed down from speaking the hard truth when I needed to hear it. Just days before I was supposed to stand as a bridesmaid in my friend Katie's wedding, Matt and I had a tense discussion. I tearfully explained how I feared I might walk down that aisle and faint in front of the crowd. I was convinced my presence would ruin her special day.
Matt responded, "Lindsay, this isn't you. Since when have you not wanted to be there for a good friend?"
I realized that fear was stealing my life.
The night before Katie's wedding, I prayed to accept my weakness and took an antidepressant. I knew my own efforts to deal with my anxiety were failing. I preferred just to get over it on my own, but the monster I was wrestling was both a physical and a mental one. I had to get over the physical condition (the heart palpitations I felt every night in bed, the jitters, the hot-and-cold-flashes) before I could really begin to work through this fear. I realized that I didn't "have it all together." I needed to accept my situation before I could begin to heal.
Getting My Life Back
When I told Matt about my decision to take an antidepressant, he was supportive. God had been at work in his heart as he saw me work through these panic attacks. I took the first pill the night before my friend's wedding and decided I was going to fight to get my life back. The wedding turned out beautifully and I didn't have any panic attacks that day. Most important, I was able to be there for my friend.
In order to fully embrace this transformation, I needed to know what was going on inside my body and mind. I didn't want to rely solely on a pill, so I read books about anxiety and listened to an audio series called Pass Through Panic to help counsel me through my fears. I also increased my physical exercise and cut out caffeine.
My parents were a great support in helping me process my panic attacks after they happened. My father and I grew especially close during this time, and he was there to take my frantic phone calls and reassure me that I was normal (not crazy!) and that my body was just responding to stress.
I searched the Bible for what God had to say about fear and anxiety and these Scriptures became my lifeblood. Looking back, I think it also would have been helpful if I'd seen a professional counselor to help me work through my fears, understand God's truth, and filter through the lies.
Facing My Fears
As I attempted to fight panic attacks from all angles (physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually), I knew this battle against fear wasn't going to go away overnight. Although I was most frightened of losing control while driving on the interstate, I was determined to drive anyway. To get myself going, I wrote down Scripture passages distinguishing God's truth from the fearful lies I bought into. I read verses aloud in the car as I neared the freeway ramp until I could do so comfortably. When my heart started to flutter or my body temperature rose, I'd just turn up the air conditioning and keep driving. I didn't let fear control me or change my lifestyle.
"Don't panic. I'm with you. There's no need to fear for I'm your God. I'll give you strength. I'll help you. I'll hold you steady, keep a firm grip on you" (Isaiah 41:10, The Message). Instead of giving fear the control, I used this verse to remind myself over and over that God is in control. I'd read it before walking over to speak with a coworker, knowing that God's peace would come with me. I spoke this verse to myself at night because I didn't need to fear irregular heartbeats. God was keeping me steady. His firm grip on me was something I experienced tangibly and could hold on to going forward.
Pushing myself to learn something new and doing it well helped to build my confidence that I could overcome panic attacks. I dove into activities that would feed my creative spirit, such as scrapbooking, knitting scarves, and painting. I also focused on spending time with mature Christian women rather than taking on more ministry relationships that demanded energy and left me feeling drained.
Living in God's Grip
After several years of dealing with panic attacks, I'm still taking a medication. It's a frustrating process, more often than not, though I've found I can support other women by being real and honest about my anxiety. The more I've talked about it, the more I've discovered I'm not the only one with these secret fears.
People don't often talk about emotional or mental disorders for fear of what others will think. But through open and honest conversations, I've built an ongoing friendship with a Christian woman named Kate who has similar struggles. Kate is now serving in China teaching English as a second language. Nothing, not even anxiety, could hold her back from what she felt God was calling her to—and her example is a constant encouragement to me. Through supportive relationships, I know I'm not alone in this fight.
Most important, I've learned what it means to accept God's firm grip on me. In my weakest times, I've begged God just to take it all away. God hasn't cured my anxiety, but he's taught me how to manage my life in a way that promotes balance, hope, and trust. I've embraced my weakness in this area, ever so slowly realizing that living with anxiety might actually keep me in a spiritually healthier place than I was before because this struggle teaches me to depend fully on God.
Lindsay Conner is a travel editor and freelance writer living in Indiana. www.lindsaysews.com.
Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women
Overcoming Panic Attacks
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