It happened again the other day.
A friend asked how Jeremy and I met and I told her we knew each other for 6 years before speaking to each other because “we were both so shy”.
“You? Shy? I don’t believe it!” My sweet, new friend laughed in my face.
And my heart leaped at a chance to once again proclaim what the Lord has done for me.
See, I’m one of the most outgoing people you’ll meet. I don’t know a stranger, and revel in eye contact, authentic fellowship, and being known.
But it wasn’t always this way.
I used to spend so much time smothered in fear and anxiety I could hardly breathe. Literally.
It was the worst at night, when I would lie in bed and review my day, grading myself on how well I met the expectations I felt from others and–worse yet–the expectations I had for myself. That’s when the pain would tighten on my chest, my breath would become necessarily shallow, and I would wonder if one of these days, these episodes would end my life.
Because the physical response to my triggers was often delayed till hours after any social interaction, it took 20 years to have my panic attacks diagnosed.
In this series of posts, you can read the whole story of that summer when I first found freedom and healing from my anxiety disorders. But today I’m revisiting the subject because the Lord has written another chapter in my life I feel compelled to share with you.
My Anxiety Relapse
I want you to know that I still struggle with this. At first I was afraid to share that I’ve had a re-occurrence of panic attacks in the last year. I wanted to claim complete deliverance, so your own faith would be boosted. But I’ve come to realize that you need the truth–whether it shakes you or shores you up is not my job to worry about. God can take care of His reputation–I simply need to be honest.
I believe there are lots of factors involved when your body responds to life with a panic attack. I have written about the physical, spiritual, and emotional triggers in the past. I believe several events from this past winter contributed to my relapse. Let me give you a picture:
- We moved 1060 miles cross country (a move I wanted, was excited about, but nevertheless stressful)
- I had a baby 6 months ago (think prolonged sleep deprivation, hormones, and general insanity)
- I have 3 other children in various seasons of schooling, potty training, and emotional (im)maturity
- Our move meant that my husband had to travel back to NY a lot to fulfill responsibilities, leaving me without his physical and emotional support
- Any transition in our family means we are not eating as healthy as we do when I’m on my game (I’ve eaten more ‘road food’ and less ‘real food’)
Anyone would agree that the above list would probably produce some negative side affects in a woman’s psyche. And it did. The chest pain came back here and there. I experienced insomnia, despite being exhausted. My mind would race, and I felt like crying all the time about nothing I could put my finger on. And I was afraid. A lot. Fear that often translated into angry outbursts at my family–I felt out of control and so I lost control. A lot.
Now, as unpleasant as all that sounds, I do not want your sympathy, because one thing is different–very different–this time around. This time when the anxiety flared up, I knew exactly what it was. And I knew what to do. This made all the difference because before, when I had all those symptoms, I didn’t know it was anxiety. I thought I was dying. But now I know who the attacker is, and how to fight back.
What I’ve Learned about Panic Attacks
Now I am grateful for my relapse, as it were, because it renewed my passion to share what I have learned about surviving panic attacks and escaping from anxiety’s grip. If you struggle with anxiety, I hope what I have learned in the last few years can help you find freedom.
1. Call It What It Is
First, I beg that you would call it what it is. It’s so easy to get caught up in the physical symptoms of a panic attack or anxiety disorder and let them distract us from the real issue. The reality is, the shortness of breath, immobilization, chest pain, claustrophobia, agoraphobia–while scary, are not cause for alarm in themselves and can distract us from the real issue if we let them.
Now, hear me–If you have chest pain, shortness of breath, heart palpitations–please don’t waste another minute to get them checked out. Uncertainty is terrifying, plus it’s foolish to remain ignorant of what may be causing a particular physical symptom. But I’ve had the EKG, chest x-ray and whatever else they did to me that day in the ER to prove there is nothing physically the matter with me. So when I feel the familiar pain, I don’t need to get further panicked. I remind myself what it is, and in the naming, the fear is delineated and can go no further.
We must not let the fear create more fear. Once we experience a symptom, we need to learn to let that be a signal to reach for the cure, not fall into further panic, fear, or self-condemnation.
2. Remember You are Not Alone
Because I have shared my story publicly, it’s given many of you permission to whisper confessions to me that you are struggling to. From these conversations I have had some insight into just how many women fight this battle, and I’ve grieved deeply to see how many secretly struggle with fear on a daily basis, and how often we fight it alone.
And so here is a truth that may bring you the mysterious comfort that comes from knowing you are not the only one: there are more women who struggle with anxiety than you realize. You and I? We have comrades in this fight. I’m blessed that several women I know online have generously and honestly shared their own struggles with panic attacks, and am privileged to share them with you. These lady’s paths have been even deeper and darker than mine, yet God has brought them hope and deliverance…
- Jennifer Ebenhack’s free ebook, Taking Courage tells her story. I’ve reviewed her amazing story here on the blog, too.
- Kristin Lemus has shared very vulnerably about her struggle with panic attacks, and this post, How to Cure Panic Attacks, is a huge help. Hits the nail on the head.
- Mandy Hoffman is telling the story in serial form on her blog of what brought her to a place of paralyzing fear, and what brought her out again. (Cliff hangar alert!!!)
It’s time we all admitted to our struggles–outlined the shaky places in our minds, not so others can judge, but so we can hold each other’s hands when we’re near the edge. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Ask For Help
Whether your anxiety represents itself as full blown panic attacks or it’s just a small, nagging stitch in your side–a tendency to worry about something rather than let it go–we need to ask for help. This is one of the hardest things to do because it can feel like betraying God to admit we’re struggling–after all, He’s supposed to be able to deliver me! Don’t worry about God–He can manage His own reputation. The reality is, the very thing we fear the most–having people know our secret struggle–is often the key to our deliverance. God designed us for community. He made us so that we thrive when we are living in authentic fellowship with other believers. Unfortunately we do not experience the soothing, supporting power of community because we just don’t go deep enough. We say we’re fine when we’re not. I do it, you do it–but each time we do, we are reenforcing the walls that keep us from freedom.
Those with diagnosed anxiety disorders are familiar with the term ‘safe person’. I was unfamiliar with the term until recently so I’ll define it for you–your safe person (or persons) is who you are able to be completely yourself with. They know you have a problem, and they love you anyway. They take you to doctor’s appointments, chauffeur you to events where there will be lots of people, or are the one person you can call in the middle of the night when things are just not right. It’s the person that tells you everything’s going to be ok and you believe them long enough to catch your breath.
That safe person is great. But you need more of them. You need to be surrounded by people who speak truth over you when you can’t stand on your own. I know this is scary, because the very reason you’ve had to have a safe person is because other people you opened up to didn’t accept you–they judged you, criticized you, shamed you, or just…walked away. So you’re afraid to open up again. But you need to do this. With what little gumption you have left, you need to reach out once more. Ask your safe person to help you pursue a new relationship. Ask the Lord to bring people into your path that understand what you’re going through. Tell your story just once more, and when it is received with open arms, acceptance, and perhaps even a “me, too!” you will have made another huge step on the journey to freedom.
We need to have a whole community of ‘safe people’ in our lives with whom we can share our ‘unfines’ and hard days and secret fears. We need enough of these people that we can go anywhere, do anything and we will bump into someone who knows us and accepts us. I have a list of people that I now can call when I’ve hit bottom–women who can handle whatever muck I’ve fallen into and are willing to listen to my wailing and gently speak truth into my mess. I made quite a few of those phone calls over the winter, and each time it gave me enough oxygen to press on in the season I was in.
4. Seek the Father
I’ve saved the best for last, friend. The most potent cure for anxiety. But I put it last because you may need help with this one.
The cure for panic attacks, and fear of any kind, is to know the truth of Who God is and your new identity in Him. You need to bathe in the presence of our Father. Only He can give you the cure for a soul imprisoned by fear. He came to set the captive free. You need to soak in scripture and practice sitting in His presence. You don’t even need to pray, dear one, if you can’t find the words. Just turn to Him. He is big enough and strong enough to do ALL the work of delivering you. You just need to ask Him. The deliverance may be a long process–though I experienced a significant dose of healing 7 years ago, I am still on this journey of learning to live without fear. But He is where the journey starts, and He is the one who will direct your path, He is the source of the truth that will set you free.
I needed help on this one. Too often I came to the Scriptures so full of shame and self-condemnation, I couldn’t hear the truth that He loved me. That He accepted me. That I was His no matter how often I failed or succumbed to fear. So the Lord sent me a friend who would read the Scriptures with me, gently pointing out the truths I was too blind to see on my own. And that’s how I’ve continued to grow and am learning to leave the fear behind–by seeing God for Who He is, and seeing myself through His eyes. He sees me as a beautiful, beloved princess–that is my true identity and why I don’t need to be afraid of what people think of me–or even what I think of me.
“…for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and He knows everything.”. 1 John 3:20
He is the ultimate safe person. Run to Him. He saves us from sin, from the punishment from sin, and to a relationship with Himself. Don’t miss out on all He came to give you, dear one.
For freedom Christ has set us free: stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1
Finding Peace Again
I’m glad to report that I’ve been doing tons better lately. No chest pain, and sleeping like a baby (except when my baby wakes me lol). I have felt the power of prayer as the friends I’ve confided in have been lifting me up. I’ve been getting up more frequently to read Scripture and soak in my Father’s presence before the day begins and this does make such a huge difference. Peace is becoming the norm again, and I have not sunk into the doldrums of swirling fears in weeks. I am daily thanking God that His promises never wear out, and His is patient to teach me,as many times as I need the reminder where to find true peace.
If you have struggled with panic attacks, I am praying peace for you–that you would have the strength to turn to Him, to ask for help, and to know that you are not alone. And please know that I am willing to be a safe person for you through this internet connection. You can comment or write me privately through my contact form. I’d love to hear from you.