Get a Grip!
Betty J. Johnson
Life is a deep black hole and I’m stuck. Physical problems bombard my body — or do they exist only in my mind? I’m drowning in a sea of pain and confusion. Where do I turn for help? This morning I read a Bible scripture which reminds me to have faith and trust in God. Is that the answer? I’m trying, but the confusion and pain drive me crazy.
This journal entry described my state of mind on September 7, 1993. Fear controlled my waking moments and haunted my sleepless nights. The previous week, a wayward golf ball struck me on the head. X-rays showed no fractures or permanent damage. Outwardly, I appeared calm and healed, but fear ruled within.
In her book Under His Wings, Patsy Clairmont describes the inner turmoil I suffered: “Imagine your heart banging against your chest while your mind stampedes wildly. Then a quaking in your hands drops suddenly to your knees, leaving you weakened. Someone then backs onto your chest with a Mack truck, while another person shovels sand into your lungs.1
Unable to function, I called my friend Ruth and cried, “What is happening to me? What shall I do?”
“What are you afraid of?” she asked.
“I can’t breathe. I think I’m dying.”
“Your mind is a powerful instrument. Take deep breaths, try to relax, and call your doctor.”
After discussing my symptoms with a physician, I knew I needed a mental health professional. I called our local Christian counseling center and they recommended a psychiatrist.
“A panic attack? Do you mean there’s a name for what I’m experiencing?” I asked after the doctor’s diagnosis.
“Millions of people suffer from anxiety and panic disorders,” he responded. “What you described is a real illness with both physical and psychological elements.”
A wave of relief overwhelmed me and tears trickled down my cheeks. Like spotting an island in rough waters, finding someone who understood and specialized in treating my condition offered a window of hope in my dark world of fear.
“Remember, although your feelings and symptoms frighten you, they’re neither dangerous nor harmful. When the anxiety begins, relax and give it time to pass,” the doctor advised. “Also, this medication offers relief from your panic attacks. Call me immediately if you have any problems,” he said, as he handed me a prescription.
“Is medication necessary?” I asked. If I had enough faith in God, I wouldn’t have to resort to pills for fear and anxiety, my inner thoughts argued.
“Does your husband take any medication?” he asked.
“Yes, high blood pressure pills,” I answered.
“Just as he needs medication to control his blood pressure right now, you need medication for your panic. We’ll begin discussing behavior changes next session. Eventually, perhaps the medication won’t be necessary, but your body is crying, ‘Halt!’ Let’s listen to it, OK?”
Over three years have passed since that conversation. Hours of individual and group therapy heightened my fifty-year-old inner wrestling match between the incompatible companions, fear and faith, anxiety and trust. Nevertheless, today I am climbing out of the black hole where fear chased me, and I’m tiptoeing into a life where trust prevails.
The prevalence of anxiety disorders is startling. At sometime during their lives, nearly a quarter (24.9%) of the adult population in the United States will have an anxiety disorder.2 Are you or someone you love looking for help in coping with this illness? Here are five lessons I’ve learned during my recovery period:
1. Get a grip on anxiety and fear.
They are as much a part of your life as eating and sleeping. Under the right circumstances, anxiety heightens alertness and readies the body for action. However, when fears become overwhelming and interfere with daily living, they are symptoms of a disorder.
Anxiety disorders refers to a group of illnesses: generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
After the doctor diagnosed my generalized anxiety disorder, guilt tapped on the door of my emotions. “If I were a perfect wife, mother, daughter, and filled with perfect faith in God, this wouldn’t be happening,” I mumbled during therapy.
“A typical response,” the doctor responded. “You need to accept people, the world, and yourself with imperfections and weaknesses. Remember, only God is perfect.”
I began an intentional plan of finding and reading Bible verses related to fear and anxiety. These words of reassurance surrounded me with comfort when debilitating anxieties threatened. Often, I repeated, “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:4).
2. Remember, you are not alone.
After several weeks of individual therapy, the doctor suggested, “I’d like you to participate in a twenty-week, nationally known group program developed for people with anxiety disorders.”
“A group? A bunch of people like me?” I asked.
When I walked into our first meeting, I scanned the room. Do I really belong here? I wondered. I listened to Jack, a man held hostage by fear in his small neighborhood; Ann, a mother unable to drive to her son’s school events; Nancy, consumed by worry over “what other people think”; Jim, a young man numbing his anxiety with illegal drugs; and Jean, terrorized by fear of embarrassment when socializing or speaking in public.*
These people all shared a common problem: a paralyzing physical reaction to fear. Unlike the annoyance of a broken record, I welcomed the familiar melody. I was not alone in my wilderness of worry and fear.
As I launched my new therapy program, which included talking about the panic attacks and making conscious changes in my daily thinking and behavior, I often repeated another Bible verse: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
3. There is help available now and hope for the future.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the President and Congress declared the 1990’s “The Decade of the Brain.”3 Nevertheless, the diagnoses and treatments of anxiety disorders are often misunderstood and misdiagnosed.
Use caution and discernment. Ask your family physician if he is knowledgeable about anxiety and panic disorders. Call the local or national Anxiety Disorders Association and ask for referrals in your area. If you are a member of a church, talk to your pastor about a Christian mental health center. Seek a professional who has specialized training in behavioral therapy and medications. Remember, there is help available. Don’t give up.
These doctors and organizations offer hope for the future. They are dedicated to research, education, discovering new treatments, expanding self-help programs, and publicizing the plague of anxiety disorders running rampant in our stress-filled society.
4. Changing your priorities and behavior is essential for recovery.
“Begin by listening to this muscle relaxation tape at least once a day, preferably more often,” the doctor advised during our second session. “On the tape, you will hear my voice instructing you regarding tightening and relaxing your body muscles. While you’re doing this, I also teach you proper breathing techniques.
“Another important part of your recovery includes nutrition and exercise. Certain foods and beverages promote anxious feelings, and daily exercise alleviates anxiety.”
“Is this how normal people feel?” I asked after several weeks of my new routine. “My shoulders dropped four inches from listening to the tapes.”
Daily walks improved my disposition and physical stamina; my heart quit pounding; and without my drinking caffeine, sunsets no longer taunted me with fear of another sleepless night.
Saying “yes” to setting aside time for my physical and mental health, and “no” to unnecessary busyness, reduced stress. I’ve learned that this painful lifestyle change must be ongoing for recovery and that the rewards include patience, gentleness, self-control, joy, and peace.
5. Depend on God’s strength.
The thread woven throughout the tapestry of my recovery is God and the Bible. Prayer and daily Bible reading emerged as a necessity for coping with fear and anxiety. God’s promise regarding His abiding presence prods me when panic attacks threaten: “He who abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, RSV).
During the pounding rain of setbacks, I find shelter in Deuteronomy 33:27: “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Setbacks do happen, but when you’re in the midst of one, remember — you can’t have a setback if you haven’t moved forward.
Finally, my contest between trust and control subsides when I repeat, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
Is my recovery from panic attacks complete? I don’t know, but they have ceased.
Does my battle with general anxiety disorder continue? Yes, but with God’s promises in my heart, I’ve adopted a new lifestyle. God leads and I follow, whispering over my shoulder, “Get behind me fear. You’re no longer in control.”
*The names have been changed.
Scripture quotations were taken from the New International Version, except where otherwise noted.
- Patsy Clairmont, Under His Wings (Focus on the Family, 1994), page 57.
- Jack D. Maser Ph.D., National Institute of Mental Health, On Target, Newsletter of Freedom From Fear, Inc., Vol. 6 No. 2, Spring/Summer 1995.
- Message from the National Institute of Mental Health, Brochure, NIH Publication No. 94-3879, September 1994, page 1.
When overwhelming anxiety creeps into your life, ask yourself these simple questions:
H – Am I hungry? Keep your body and spirit nourished with healthy foods and soul-satisfying verses from the Bible.
A – Is anger involved in my anxiety? Remember, you can express your anger without causing havoc or destruction. Talk it out reasonably and logically.
L – Am I feeling lonely? Verbalize your feelings and alleviate tension. Repeat John 16:32: “I am not alone, for [God] is with me.”
T – Am I physically or mentally tired? Goals and priorities must include time for adequate rest and relaxation. Schedule some time alone with God.