It happened again yesterday. It was the first time in a long while that I had again felt the wave of irrational panic sweep through my body. My hands began to shake, my pulse quickened, noises seemed deafening. The room began to spin, it was difficult to get a deep breath, and my arms began to feel week. I know this foe that occasionally appears to steal my calm though I cannot tell you why it comes. About 8 years ago I had my first real anxiety attack. I was in my office and everything in the room started to go sideways. My hands began to shake and I felt weak. I thought I just needed some hot tea (a minor obsession of mine, I drink four cups a day). I shuffled into the copy room and made myself some tea and quietly hurried back to my office where I tried to relax. After some time of prayer and considerable effort to simply relax, I finally forced myself to go into the youth building and pick things up. Eventually, I was able to calm my nerves.
After that first attack, I began to wrestle more often with anxiety. Sometimes it felt like a weekly issue. Now, to be clear, I don’t have a medical anxiety issue. I’m naturally a pretty easy-going and calm person. Though in Brazoria Texas, I’m told I am high-strung (so I guess that’s a matter of perspective). I like things to be in order and I live a relatively ordered and easy life. I do not claim that my struggles with anxiety are anywhere near the difficulty of some people who feel the walls close in and have to completely shut down the outside world. I do not have “crippling anxiety.” I do struggle with minor anxiety attacks. About 4 years ago they were frequent and I had not experienced an attack for about a year and a half… until yesterday. I shared what I did to address the issue in a tweet and was told that it was helpful. So… I thought I’d explain a bit more. Maybe you’ll find some help. Maybe you know this already. Maybe…
4 observations about anxiety.
- Usually, anxiety attacks have a trigger. Often anxiety attacks are a result of some sort of encounter, suppressed or remembered. People who struggle with anxiety typically have a looming pressure that they can feel coming closer. My anxiety has almost always been associated with meetings or people. Both meetings and people bother me. I feel nervous at the very thought of sitting down and having a “talk” with someone in a meeting in which I do not control the agenda. For me, I recognize this as a trigger. I’ve been around other people who have anxiety as a response to chaotic noise or crowded rooms. I even knew one person who had an anxiety attack whenever they saw a particular flower. Identifying these triggers can help. It is important not to avoid these triggers… It is best to address them.
- Anxiety is a real issue. This is not a pretend psychological gloss of fear or an excuse to avoid confrontation. It’s a real problem people struggle with. Further, when Paul says “be anxious for nothing, but in all things, by prayer and petition make your request known to God” (Phil 4:6) he is not talking about dealing with anxiety attacks. (For thoughts on that particular passage, click here.) That said, anxiety affects people differently. The common symptoms are shaking, shortness of breath, inability to focus, and a light-headed feeling. However, they are not limited to these.
- Honesty and transparency in community can help to alleviate anxiety. There are few things more powerful than living in authentic community. A community based on trust and openness is a powerful aid in dealing with anxiety. When transparency is held in high value, many triggers will be arrested and dispelled in the comfort of open community.
- You cannot simply “fix” anxiety. It is a complex problem. Most people who struggle with anxiety cannot tell you why they struggle with anxiety. They simply do. It is difficult to identify triggers much less the source of anxiety. I’m a pastor and I’d love to tell you that there is a verse that will solve every anxiety you will ever face. And while it is true that strengthening your faith and knowledge of God can help, anxiety is not simply answered with a verse. It takes more to war against this opponent.
Some things I do to address anxiety attacks.
- Silence is counter-intuitive in our culture. We desire to drown out noise with louder sounds. However, when anxiety strikes me, I need silence. Soft music doesn’t help, in fact, it often increases the strength of the attack. Years ago I invested in some noise canceling headphones. When I feel an attack coming, I grab my headphones first.
- A calming hot drink. Personally, I prefer hot tea. I put a small scoop of cinnamon in it. I was told that cinnamon in hot tea can help with unsteady nerves. I’m not a doctor, I have no medical evidence for this. But, I can attest that it does work.
- Focus on one task. When I struggle with an anxiety attack, I need to feel successful. I need to be reminded that I can complete something. Assurance that I’m useful. The task does not have to be a big one. It can be something as simple stacking papers or making lunch. I find it is helpful when the task takes some effort but is mostly rote.
- Practicing the presence of God. Christians have a great advantage over others who struggle with anxiety. A disciplined practice of faith and consistent routine will help to stabilize your life and offer strength when the attacks hit. Anxiety can be heightened by unfamiliar activity. Because I occasionally struggle to control my anxiety, it is helpful to maintain a consistent and disciplined routine.
- It’s hard to breathe when the room closes in. But you need to breathe. It helps to control heart rate and settle the racing mind. So take slow steady breaths and bring some control to your heart rate.
- Ask for help. I live in authentic community with people who know me well. When anxiety closes in, one phone call and I’ve got a community around me, praying, coming to help, and offering presence. This is probably the greatest asset to overcoming anxiety. If you don’t have a community, join one. If you’re in my area, Sovereign Grace Fellowship is a community that will offer you that kind of fellowship.