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Stress. Overload. Anxiety. Fear. Panic.
I bet you have personal experience with at least one of these, if not several. I do.
I’ve been battling panic attacks for years. They started when my dad walked out just after I turned nineteen, continued with my oldest son’s diagnosis of leukemia at ten, and escalated with his relapse at nineteen. Which we’re still dealing with today.
Depending on where you are in your relationship with God, how you were raised, and how you define your faith, you’ll be having a few thoughts about my struggle with stress and yours.
But this blog isn’t about judgment or criticism about either of our faith walks.
SEE ALSO: How to See God in Your Grief
It’s about honesty, transparency, and the truth that even though we’re believers, we still wrestle with being human. Most of us can agree we won’t be made whole, complete, or perfect until we get where we’re meant to be—in heaven with Jesus.
Even Paul fought being-human battles. See 2 Corinthians 12:7 and Romans 7:14-20.
If you don’t struggle with the flesh and the failure to give up worrying in every situation, feel free to stop reading. This post isn’t for you. And I’m glad. I’m always striving to grow in trust.
For those of you still reading, I’m about to get very raw and very real. But I’m going to share my victory and the power behind on-your-knees, desperate prayer. What helps me the most in facing future fear and anxious moments is looking back on how God’s come through for me in the past.
This year, I faced two surgeries. In March, I had to have a plate and eight screws attached to a broken ankle that refused to heal. And last weekend, I had a more minor, less invasive office procedure for something else.
Thanks to six-plus years of my son’s cancer, I’ve developed quite a doctor phobia. I’m fine taking him to clinic, staying with him at the hospital, holding his hand, watching bone marrow aspirations, spinal taps, and weekly chemo infusions and all their after-effects.
I’m far from fine when things go wrong with me.
I’m certain it’s because of fear. Fear I won’t be able to physically and emotionally support him if something bad happens to me.
Trying to take care of him during the six months I spent in a wheelchair, thanks to a badly-placed curb and a pair of crappy shoes, about did me in. There was a lot of crying and frustration over not being able to get to him in a potential crisis. There were many days I crawled up the stairs to his room, because he couldn’t get down the stairs to mine.
So in March, as I prepared for that first surgery, you can imagine my stress level. Thinking about sitting in the waiting room. Wondering what was going to go wrong. Rereading the paragraphs of small print I had to initial covering the risks of cutting open my ankle and anesthesia and so on. The week leading up to surgery produced stress situations that led to multiple panic attacks.
Here’s what my panic attacks aren’t: They aren’t a flight-or-fight racing heart, a zero-to-sixty pulse, or frantic gasps for air that require bending over and breathing into a paper bag.
My panic attacks mirror a silent free fall from a five-story building—that ends in black-hole nothingness. A slow bottoming out. Tunnel vision that won’t stop narrowing. Quiet that covers every outside sound until I’m left with a dull echo inside my head. A hand inside my chest, coaxing my lungs to slow. A light-headed, dizzy, shaky fading into myself, where I’m certain I’ll pool onto the floor and pass out.
While that might sound more pleasant than most people’s flight-or-fight response, it’s actually more alarming. More terrifying. More out of control. I’m literally losing myself and I don’t even have the adrenaline rush to try and fight back.
What fascinates me—in spite of the chilling fear of going into panic-mode, especially in public—is that my anxiety doesn’t always attack in the darkness of a stress-filled situation. My anxiety is a stealthy, sneaky, impossible-to-predict predator, and can hide around a corner in a brightly lit moment, waiting to take me unaware.
If I catch the anxiety coming on, sometimes I’ll have enough time to distract myself enough to stop my slide off that five-story ledge. But it’s an iffy fight. And even if I win, that bottoming-out sensation often lies just below the surface, threaded through my chest, threatening to go off for hours after.
But if I can’t find a distraction, once the ledge crumbles, there’s no stopping the fall.
The night before ankle surgery, I asked a lot of people to prayer for me. As I was trying to get to sleep, the five times I woke up tossing and turning, and as I was sliding from the wheelchair into the car the next morning, I prayed too. Begged actually.
All I could get out was—Please don’t let me have a panic attack.
The entire ten-mile ride to the surgery center, I was calm. No bottoming out.
During the thirty-minute delay in the waiting room, I was calm. No shaking.
Curled up in the pre-op bed dealing with gowns and IV’s, I was calm. No free fall.
Rehashing the surgery with the doctors involved, I was calm. No panic.
And I can tell you with absolute certainty, none of that was me.
My husband’s reassuring hand wasn’t big enough to take and bear my fear. There wasn’t an elaborate enough distraction I could’ve grabbed onto. No amount of self-talk could’ve kept me from diving off that ledge.
My calm? All God. The peace inside me truly did pass all understanding. I couldn’t duplicate it if I tried. I can’t even explain it.
“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7 NIV).
So last weekend, the night before my second surgery, I clung to what happened, or what didn’t happen—panic—during my ankle surgery. Like before, I garnered prayers and said my own.
And guess what? No bottoming out. No shaking. No free fall. No panic.
Maybe your stress, overload, anxiety, and fear don’t channel into full-blown panic. Maybe they do. Either way, here are five things that help me make it through when I feel like I’m falling.
1. Find a verse that means something specific to you. Memorize it. Cling to it. And don’t let go.
2. Take away every other stress you can, until your panic situation ends. You don’t need to cook a meal, clean your house, or go to a PTA meeting the day before surgery.
3. Ask others to pray. Intercession is a powerful tool. Sometimes we just can’t prayer for ourselves.
4. Write a list of what God’s done for you in similar situations. And post it on your bathroom mirror, refrigerator, or steering wheel. Read it often.
5. Remember everything ends. This is a phase in your life. And it won’t last forever.
For more survival tips, check out my blog series: Surviving the Storm.
Lori Freeland is a freelance author from Dallas, Texas with a passion to share her experiences in hopes of connecting with other women tackling the same issues. She holds a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a full-time homeschool mom. You can find Lori at lafreeland.com.
Publication date: October 21, 2015