Nights can be the worst. That’s when they steal in and threaten to pull me under. Panic attacks.
Not me, the therapist, I thought. I had been free of panic attacks for almost twenty years and out of nowhere, they began again —three in the last eight months.
Somehow in the middle of the night a tsunami of sheer terror arises out of nowhere and crashes over me before I even know what’s happening, before I can have a conscious thought or even begin to fight for my life. In those moments, it takes every ounce of strength I can muster not to drown in the fear and to keep my head above water, though everything is pulling at me, holding me beneath the surface, jeopardizing my very survival. That’s what it feels like, anyway.
It’s not pretty. Sometimes a panic attack can mean a sleepless night, other times the attack can result in my body waging an internal war, tying every ligament and cell into a knot of torture and torment that can take days to calm. What has been worse for me is developing a fear of the fear, a dread and/or apprehension of having another attack.
Psychology Today defines a panic attack as, a sudden rush of fear and anxiety that seems to come out of nowhere and causes both physical and psychological symptoms. The level of fear experienced is unrealistic and completely out of proportion to the events or circumstances that trigger a panic attack.
Everyone who suffers from panic attacks experiences them differently, but some of the symptoms are fairly universal. These can be:
- trouble breathing
- chest pain
- rapid heart beat
- a feeling of impending doom or dread
- shortness of breath
- feeling of choking or smothering
- feeling like you are going to die
If you have ever experienced extreme anxiety or panic attacks, you might feel like you’re alone. You’re not. Panic attacks can be quite common, with about 6 million American adults having a diagnosed panic disorder, a condition marked by recurrent panic attacks, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). At least 11% of the population has a panic attack in a given year.
These attacks typically affect more women than men, young adults, and individuals with workaholic, type A personalities, but they can also be found in children. They can be triggered by specific situations, by extended periods of extreme stress, or by nothing at all.
Suddenly your body surges with adrenaline. You are hit with a feeling of dread and impending doom like you are going to die, go crazy, faint or lose control, said Tamar Chansky, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the book, Freeing Yourself from Anxiety.
Chansky goes on to describe the onset of a panic attack as the brain, suddenly and out of the blue, engaging the emergency response program like it would if you’re in serious danger. [This] would be great except that it happens in the absence of any actual threat.
Dr. Archibald Hart, Christian psychologist and expert on stress and anxiety, says in his book, The Anxiety Cure, that, many hard-working, driven people don’t realize just how close [we] walk to the precipice of anxiety until one day, out of the blue, a panic attack strikes . . . . We don’t realize how close we are to the edge of anxiety until we lose our footing and tumble . . . into the dark abyss of panic.
For me, there was tremendous shame because I believed somehow I should have this anxiety thing whipped. To be honest, shame’s dark cloud held me in a prison of silence for a season. I told no one. Believing at the same time I was a spiritual failure because I couldn’t think clearly enough to get my Bible and find the verses dealing with fear, proved to be overwhelming. Yet today, I have hope.
While medication is necessary for some people, I have found several strategies that have turned the tide and are helping me win the battle over extreme anxiety and panic attacks.
Lean Into the Wave
In the midst of a panic attack most of my energy is spent trying to get away, to escape the horrific feelings that are pounding against me. Running never works —it usually makes it worse.
Deep-breathing exercises are critical in dealing with extreme anxiety or panic attacks. If you would like to learn more about deep breathing and watch a tutorial, here is a helpful article that will guide you step-by-step through deep-breathing techniques.
I’m learning more and more how to lean in and breathe through the feelings of panic. Like many women who breathe into labor pains, leaning in and breathing into the panic begins to change the direction of my energy. I can slowly focus my energy on the present moment, which helps me accept the feelings in my body and press through them to the other side.
Yes, there is another side. It’s important to know that a panic attack won’t last forever. In fact, they usually last about 10 minutes. The panic will begin to fade, moving away like waves slowly wandering back out to sea. In the end, you may be left a little tired, perhaps a little drained, but you will also relieved.
Talk Myself Off The Ledge
I cannot even think of talking myself through anything if I haven’t learned to lean into the wave and begun to slow my heart rate, calming my physical body to the point the fight or flight symptoms of brain fog start to dissipate. At this point I am clear-headed enough to re-engage my thinking and begin talking myself off the ledge.
At first, my thoughts are simple. I am okay. I am safe. God is with me. This won’t last forever. Being able to remind myself that though I am going through a difficult moment, it won’t kill me and I will make it to the other side, is invaluable.
When I am afraid I tell myself God is with me, He will never leave & I know I will make it through.Click To Tweet
I will also start to speak out loud my favorite Scripture on God’s love for me, His compassion, His care, even in my deepest struggles. Here are a few of my verses:
Zephaniah 3:17 (NIV) – The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.
Isaiah 41:10 (NKJV) – Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.
John 14:27 (NIV) – Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
Deuteronomy 31:6 (NIV) – Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.
Psalm 4:8 (NKJV) – I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; for You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
Psalm 4:8-I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; for You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.Click To Tweet
If I am still in a stressed state and my thoughts are racing, I will usually implement some cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that allow me to see the connection between my thoughts and behaviors. The point of CBT for those of us with panic disorder is to teach us how the panic attacks start as well as how to not perpetuate them. By learning to question the negative thoughts associated with the panic attack, decatastrophize the thoughts by taking them to their worst case conclusion, and challenge the negative beliefs, we can stop the panic spiral.
Without that panic spiral of catastrophizing questions — what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?! — panic attacks really can’t occur anymore, says Chansky.
Take Myself To The Beach (almost)
Guided imagery is powerful to help redirect my focus from the physical and emotional distress of the panic attack to my calm, safe place where I am free of any worry, anxiety, or fear. With guided imagery, I close my eyes and begin to focus on the smallest details of my calm, safe place —for me, the beach.
In noticing and engaging the sights, the smells, the sounds, and the sensations of the beach, I give my full attention to my safety rather than my stressor. In minutes, I can feel my body start to relax and my mind slowly untangle from the irrational, panicked thoughts that created the panic attack in the first place.
Phillipians 4:8 (NIV) tells us, Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.
We don’t have to remain helpless victims to our fear and panic. We don’t have to let it destroy our peace. We are powerful to shape our experiences and create mindful, intentional ways to redirect our thoughts, to refocus our minds on something that is true, that is lovely. Pure.
I’m sure many people think those of us who struggle with anxiety and panic should, just get over it, as I once thought. I can’t say I will never have a panic attack again —the truth is, I don’t know. What I do know is that I am cultivating the courage to deal with them differently and each time, I’m a little less scared than before. Each time, my strength grows and my bravery shines, for I know I don’t walk this path alone.
About This Community
Don’t we all want a little peace? My heart for this community is to provide just that – a needed refuge from all the burdens that weigh us down, some encouragement and inspiration to keep us weary travelers moving forward on our journeys, and some practical advice to help each of us navigate the challenges of life and relationships. Whether in our parenting, our marriages, our faith, or the broken places in our hearts, this place is for anyone who dares to reach beyond the hopelessness that surrounds us and embrace a lifestyle of emotional abundance and peace!
About Peace for a Lifetime
In my new book, Peace for a Lifetime, I share the keys to cultivating a life that’s deeply rooted, overflowing, and abundant, the fruit of which is peace. Through personal and professional experience as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I’ve discovered how to take the broken pieces of life and find indestructible peace with herself, God and with others. Through my story and other’s stories you’ll realize that you can experience the life for which you long. You can experience abundance beyond anything you can imagine. You can experience peace, not just for today, not just for tomorrow. You can experience peace —for a lifetime!
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