Question: Last month, I thought I was having a heart attack. My pulse was racing, my palms were sweating, and I started breathing heavily, as if I were going to pass out. I went to the hospital, and they said my heart was fine—what I had experienced was a panic attack. Now I have anxiety episodes almost every day. I wake up at night fretting about my job or my life. When I have these episodes, I keep thinking I might have a heart attack for real this time. What can I do to gain control of my mind and emotions?
Answer: I’m so glad that you felt safe enough to tell us this. Often people who struggle with fear hesitate to tell anyone because they don’t want to be criticized for having such feelings. Please know that we understand and we want to help.
People can control some emotions fairly well. If we feel discouraged after a long day at work, we may read an enjoyable novel or take a brisk walk and we feel better. Anxiety, however, is much more difficult to shake loose once it grips our hearts. Our thoughts race, we imagine horrible things happening to us, and then our body begins to react. Adrenaline rushes into our system. Our pulse quickens. Our hands turn cold. We breathe rapidly and break out in a cold sweat. We may even feel like we are going to die, which really adds fuel to our fears.
Based on what you described, you have experienced this emotional and physical response. What can you do? Some well-meaning Christians say, “If you just trust God, you won’t be afraid.” However, trust is a passive experience. Convincing yourself to trust when your emotions are running wild and your body is reacting as if you’re in terrible danger is beyond difficult. It’s like trying to fall asleep after drinking an espresso by commanding yourself, “Sleep body. Sleep, sleep, sleep!”
However, you can take some active steps to control your anxiety. The first step is in the spiritual realm. Paul writes,
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
The spiritual part of the solution is to draw near to our divine Source of peace through prayer and thanksgiving. Imagine yourself joining together with Jesus, locking arms with Him, and stepping forward in His strength. What a great prayer technique! Prayer places us in a position of dependence upon God. Through prayer, you acknowledge that you are not your own. By completely surrendering to God, you can have peace because God is on the throne of your life and He is in charge of the things that you can’t control.
One important component of these verses is easily overlooked. I’m referring to Paul’s statement, “with thanksgiving.” We often stop at the petition stage. We’re good at calling out to God, begging Him to bring us relief. But giving thanks takes prayer to a higher level.
Thank God that He will never leave you (Hebrews 13:5-6). Thank Him that He will never allow anything to occur in your life that you won’t be able to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). Thank Him that when you are weak, His grace is sufficient and His power is more evident (2 Corinthians 12:9). Thank Him that His love for you never ends, regardless of how sick you may be (Psalm 13:5-6). Thank Him that every day of your life is in His hands (Psalm 31:15; Psalm 139:16). Thank Him that living brings glory to Christ and that dying allows you to enter into joys and pleasures beyond your wildest imaginations (Philippians 1:21). Thank Him that you know, without any doubt, that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13-15). Thank Him for all these things and more. Thank Him again and again, and you will find that, over time, your fear will be replaced with the incredible peace of God.
By the way, don’t wait for a panic attack to take over before you start praying. Think of prayer and meditation as a preventative cure—like exercising. Prayer builds up inner muscles so that when you start to feel fear, you have the strength to calm yourself down.
The second step concerns the physical component. Panic attacks are often a signal that we aren’t handling stress properly. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, an excellent book by Edmund J. Bourne, will teach you how to relax your body when your anxiety rises. Although this book is not distinctively Christian, you may find it quite helpful and practical. You also may want to consult with a psychiatrist or physician to prescribe the right medication at the proper dosage for your anxiety. Medication can prevent or reduce the intensity of your panic attacks, allowing you to focus on the spiritual, mental, and emotional facets of your anxiety.
Third, you must consider the mental aspect. Compile some verses to reassure yourself during fearful times, and read them out loud at least twice a day. As you do this, take some time to meditate on the truths they present. God’s Word holds great power, and you’ll find yourself gaining strength as you regularly read through these Scriptures.
In addition to Scripture, you may find it helpful to read David Stoop’s book Self-Talk: Key to Personal Growth. Most of the anxiety we feel is related to what Stoop calls “irrational” fears or “misbeliefs.” By focusing on what is rational and true, you can learn to manage your fears.
Finally, the emotional component must be recognized. Ironically, many people forget to consider their emotions when battling fear. They think, It’s all in my mind. But fears may be linked to feelings of resentment or abandonment that could go back as far as childhood. Many times fear results from having unresolved pain or emotional issues buried so deeply that, when they finally surface, they mask themselves in the form of anxiety. The key (along with learning to manage your anxiety) is to go beneath the surface to find out what caused your anxiety in the first place. And often several layers must be peeled away before you discover the real issue.
Do you need to deal with some hidden feelings? If so, you may benefit from seeing a Christian counselor who can help you unlock some neglected emotions. At the very least, arrange weekly meetings with a friend, a family member, or your pastor—someone willing to listen as you explore your feelings. You may find that as you share yourself with a completely trustworthy person who truly cares about you, you will release some of the emotional pressure in your life.
Your anxiety is real and the pain is deep. Wanting relief from those symptoms is normal. Yet instead of thinking of your anxiety as something to avoid, think of it as something that has value in your life. Think of it as the kind of pain a pregnant woman experiences when she goes into labor. When her contractions begin, she usually fights and struggles against them, tensing up and trying to make them go away. But at some point, she realizes that her pain has value. Her baby can’t be born without it. So instead of fighting it, she accepts the pain and learns to manage it and use it to produce a precious new life.
Emotional pain can produce something of great value. It serves a purpose in your life. Usually that purpose has to do with some precious truth about God that He wants to reveal to you. Don’t run away or hide from the pain, but accept it, manage it, and use it for your benefit—to grow closer to the Lord than ever before.