Since fear and dread and worry
Cannot help in any way,
It’s much healthier and happier
To be cheerful every day—
And if we’ll only try it
We will find, without a doubt,
A cheerful attitude’s something
No one should be without—
For when the heart is cheerful
It cannot be filled with fear,
And without fear the way ahead
Seems more distinct and clear—
And we realize there’s nothing
We need to face alone,
For our heavenly Father loves us
And our problems are His own.
Helen Steiner Rice
Once you have anxiety or trauma has triggered panic attacks, it can be very distressing and difficult to overcome. Once anxiety starts it is hard to squelch it. It has a life of it’s own. Trauma and abuse can change the chemistry in the brain and set into motion automatic responses to triggers and reminders of the trauma. Once you have had panic attacks, pathways have been set in the brain that leave you vulnerable to more panic attacks.
Friends and family may be puzzled or tell you it is all in your head. But you know it’s more than that; it’s in your brain, it’s in your body, and you can’t seem to run away from it because wherever you go-there you are. Once the response starts a surreal experience occurs and you feel unable to calm down.
God seemed to know we would struggle with anxiety because scripture often addresses it. He reminds us of his loving care and assures us not to feel anxious or to worry, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7-8). Still, we worry about our kids, our future, our job, making the mortgage payment, our parents, to name only a few.
Worry and Panic are separate entities, but the treatment for each can be related.
1. Learn to manage your self-talk or inner dialogue.
Name Calling: I am aware that many of us spend a lot of time abusing ourselves verbally in our thought life. We may call ourselves names or put pressure on ourselves to do things “just so”. When we fall short of our (excessive) expectations we may call ourselves a “loser”, “stupid” or any other variety of names. If you call yourself names then it is important to catch yourself and then tell yourself, “I am not a loser!” This will help you change your habits. Take labeling yourself out and focus on the situation, “I am not stupid, I just made a mistake.”
Catastrophizing: Assuming that a negative outcome will occur and that it will be catastrophic. This is usually where we live in “What if” land. What if______________ happens? It would be horrible! If you use the words horrible, awful, terrible or other extreme word to describe everyday occurrences then you need to stop! Without realizing the magnitude of words and our thought life we set ourselves up for anxiety.
Change your thoughts to reflect minor disappointments rather then “end of the world” scenarios. If you are late to practice it is not the end of the world…it is just a disappointment, for example.
Underestimating your ability to cope: While you may overestimate the gravity of the situation, you may also underestimate your inner strength. You might feel that you will die of embarrassment, people will think less of you, or you don’t have what it takes. It is important to recognize your own resilience. Remind yourself of past successes, or tell yourself “I can do this”, instead of “I can’t do this.” Or, “If it isn’t perfect then it is okay.” Work hard to reassure yourself instead of assuming your own failure.
2. Meditate on Scripture
Christians don’t panic! Meditation has long been a Christian practice. As long as the meditative time is focused on the Lord, Scripture, and His presence meditation can be fulfilling and life changing.
“The Bible is full of reflective or meditative passages and calls us to open our private worlds to them. Among the most popular are those passages out of the Psalms where the writer fixes his mind upon certain aspects of God’s being and consistent care for His children” (P. 214, Ordering your Private World, Gordon MacDonald).
If you struggle from anxiety do a search on http://www.biblegateway.com to find some verses that speak to you. You can search by word or phrase. Type in anxiety or worry and see what comes up. Write those verses down and meditate on them. Ask God to reveal to you what He wants you to know about His character. Sit in a quiet place and let the verses sink into your soul. Let your soul be like a sponge and the verses a drink. As they sink in you will feel your perspective changing.
Verses that stand out to you can be written on note cards or paper and taped on your bathroom mirror, or your kitchen cabinets. This way you can read them daily as you allow God’s spirit and love to minister to your soul.
Another quote from Gordon MacDonald clarifies; “The act of meditation is like tuning the spirit to heavenly frequencies. One takes a portion of scripture and simply allows it to enter into the deepest recesses of self. There are often several different results: cleansing, reassurance, the desire to praise and give thanksgiving” (p. 214, Ordering Your Private World).
Life is harried, busy and we normally have too much on our plates to stop and do this. I find that when I do, I gain perspective on what I need to be focused on and somehow the capacity to do it comes along with it. We think we are wasting precious time to slow down enough to find a quiet place to mediate on scripture, but it helps us more than frantically chasing our own schedule. I challenge you to make this a habit and see what happens.
3. Visualize a peaceful scene
Sometimes during those quiet times the Holy Spirit can give you an image of something to bring fresh perspective. I shared before how I pictured a bungee cord holding me up on top of a skyscraper when I had panic attacks 12 years ago when I was held up at gunpoint in my office. That helped but as I continued to pray the cord was replaced with an image of the Lord or and angel holding me up and carrying me to safety. My sense of security improved and my anxiety started to subside.
For those of you who can’t sleep due to excessive worry you can pray and ask God to give you an image of a peaceful scene. You can select a favorite place to visualize to take your mind off of your worries. I personally choose the beach and overlooking the water. Some of my early quiet times were done at the beach and I grew up near the lake. Others of you may choose a mountain scene or something else. Whatever it is, use it to deter your thoughts off of your anxiety.
4. Deep Breathing
This is a very simple exercise. It involves changing your breathing habits. It is not meditation. When you are stressed or anxious most of us will start to breath short shallow breaths from our chest. We usually don’t realize we are doing this. Most of us live high paced lives and rapid shallow breathing becomes habitual. When we are relaxed we should be breathing deep slow breath’s from our gut.
The way to test your breathing is place one hand on your shoulder and one on your stomach and breath in. Either your hand on your shoulder will go up or the one on your stomach will go out. If your shoulder goes up then you are breathing improperly. You will get less oxygen to your brain and muscles, which will increase your stress level.
Practice until the hand on your shoulder stays down and your stomach pushes your hand on your stomach out. Once you get it (it’s okay to chuckle while you are learning) then do several slow breaths in and out counting slowly to 4 or 5.
In…2…3…4… Out…2…3…4… In…2…3…4… Out…2…3…4… In…2…3…4… and so on.
I practice in the car, grocery isle and any time I remember to switch my breathing back to a calmer state. If you are a singer this breathing will give you more breath support and for the rest of us it will help us be less anxious. Keep practicing until it becomes habit.
5. Stay away from stimulants
Too much caffeine, ginseng, or decongestants can trigger panic or create anxiety attacks. If you have anxiety it is probably not a good idea to drink Starbucks double shots, Red Bull, or other energy drinks. They will jazz you up only to perpetuate the cycle and dependence on them to keep you going.
Some people shy away from anti-depressants because it implies you don’t have enough faith or you are not strong enough to handle it on your own. Would a diabetic not take insulin to treat an imbalance in the body? Would that mean a diabetic didn’t have faith? What about someone with a thyroid condition? Thyroid medications are among those most prescribed in the nation. So why then would we say to someone who has a deficiency of Serotonin in the brain to not take medication to treat it?
Severe Depression and Anxiety can be debilitating and very real. If you or someone you know is suffering the ill effects of debilitating anxiety you may want to consult with your doctor. I know of few people who would take medication just to take medication. If you are considering it then I assume you may need it. Try other things in addition to the medication. Exercise is a natural way to improve Serotonin imbalances in the brain (although, It may not be enough for severe depression). Don’t feel ashamed, but be responsible for your own well-being.
I hope that is enough to get you started. Hang in there because sometimes these things work and other times they don’t. Do not get discouraged and do not give up. It is a life long process and sometimes life throws a bunch of stressors at us at once. Just keep going forward and remember that you are not alone. God is nearby for you to call out to for help. Here are some good verses to start with:
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:25-26)
“Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)
“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8)
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27b)
Best wishes to you and keep the faith!--Gretchen