The moment that you accept that anxiety is a real issue in your life is a big step in managing anxiety. Earlier this year as I sought to accept this in myself I became significantly more anxious. In the past when I had periods of anxiety I had always ignored and minimised the anxiety as much as possible due to linking it with a specific cause or situation. But at the beginning of this year I was no longer able to recognise a specific reason for the anxiety and it was impacting me more and more. However, the idea that I was unable to manage this on my own was increasingly overwhelming. Probably because seeking help in our society is often associated with weakness and in Christian circles can also be associated with a lack of faith. We all want people to think that we have everything together and that we don't need help from anyone. I have learnt that seeking help is not a sign of weakness but actually great strength because it is an acknowledgement that that there is an issue and wanting to actively seek help to resolve or improve that area is a good thing. And so, with the encouragement of friends and family I sought out a psychologist for assistance. Once I had accepted that I needed help I found a psychologist quickly but it had been 6-7 months after the anxiety first reared it's ugly head.
It was mid 2016 when I had my first panic attack. Some of the contributing factors to this were; being physically run down, regularly pushing beyond my capacity and frequently being overwhelmed by being overcommitted. This was the perfect recipe to trigger heightened anxiety and panic attacks. One of the main challenges with anxiety is that it is not just a psychological issue with fears and thoughts, anxiety is also a deeply physical experience.
With a panic attack your mind responds to a perceived danger by enacting your fight and / or flight response. You receive a surge of adrenaline which can make your heart beat incredibly fast, can impact your breathing, can make you feel nauseous and can make you tremble causing you not to be able to sit still. Just to name a few! For me personally my panic attacks mimic the sensation of having an asthma attack, my chest tightens and I feel like I can't breathe. Even though I have plenty of oxygen my brain misinterprets the information and tells me that I could stop breathing and die. In the moments or minutes during a panic I really believe that this is a possibility. Which is an incredibly awful feeling. I have had to train myself to reject the perception my brain has in that moment of panic and convince myself that I am ok, that I can breathe, and that I am safe.
This has taken lots of practice and lots of conversations with my psychologist to get me to a place that I mostly can recognise when it is a pain of attack. I have learnt to also train my mind not to jump to panic and be overly obsessed with how I am breathing. I find little tricks like saying to myself, 'if you can walk or talk you can breathe', or 'if your fingers and lips are pink you are breathing and fine'. When my panic attacks started they only occurred once every couple of weeks but at their worst I would have multiple panic attacks a day and even moments after I had just recovered and calmed myself after one panic attack another would follow. Sometimes I had a panic attack in my sleep. This was probably the most frightening part of my anxiety and could take me an hour to relax and sleep again.
Sometimes I thought if it was just fear and anxiety I could manage but panic attacks create extra fear in and of themselves. What will I do if I have a panic attack and how will I manage it were questions I often asked myself. On one occasion I had a panic attack on a train and felt trapped. I subsequently developed a fear of catching public transport and being away from family who could support me. This fear is linked to being fearful of panic attacks. Our natural response to this is to avoid situations or places where panic attacks have occurred before. Thankfully I hadn't fully gone into avoidance mode because my psychologist later explained to me that every time we avoid places or situations that caused panic attacks that we actually are teaching our minds that the panic was the correct response and that we really were in danger. This leads to more fear each time we face a situation and avoid. The best way to overcome these fears is to go to the place or in my circumstances catch the train. In doing this we teach our minds that these situations or places may be unpleasant at times but they are not dangerous and the more times you do this the more the fear decreases.
Not only did I need to learn to manage the panic attacks I also had to learn how to deal with the underlying fears and contributing factors that increased the impact of those fears.
The first thing that I have done is to retrain my mind and its response to fear. Within normal everyday situations my mind would often chose to believe that the worst case scenario would happen or if a thought entered my mind then it was true. With the help of my psychologist I was able to learn to manage my anxiety, to recognise that just because a thought enters my mind does not make it true and to allow fears to pass by me and not to consume me.
Another major way of overcoming different fears has been using the bible to speak into and challenge my fears and thoughts. For example, if I was becoming anxious about failing or letting people down then I would read to myself Romans 8:1, Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. This reassured me of my security in Christ even if things did not go to plan and that in Christ Jesus that there is no condemnation and so when my mind condemns me I read this verse to assure me of how I am seen in God’s eyes.
When I was overwhelmed by fears of suffering or illness and even just generally feeling anxious I read Romans 8:18,38-39 38 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. This shaped my ability to ultimately rely on God in the face of immense fear. Sometimes if I woke up in the middle of the night with a panic attack, I would read all of Romans 8 and sense myself relaxing and being able to sleep again. God’s word is powerful and can truly speak into our hearts and minds at times when we need it most.
The verse I have gone to most in the last 10 years is Psalm 46:1-3 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. This passage says so much to me about who God is and that no matter what this life throws at us, whether pain, fear, suffering or trial, that we have a God who is greater than all. We have a God that we can truly rely on and find shelter in the storm to strengthen and protect us. We have a God. This verse also speaks of how God sees me, he sees me as resilient. That through faith and holding onto him, God has delivered me through many challenges and grown my resilience that is built on him alone.
Lastly, as someone who usually has high capacity I had to learn the art of rest and saying no. This is still something I am growing in but rest also demonstrates my reliance on God. I don’t need to be in control and do everything. I can live within my limits and not have to keep pressing beyond them. I can trust that God is in control and truly is my refuge and strength. I am so thankful to God for who he is in my life and who he has put in my life, close friends and family, that love and support me each day.
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Louisa is currently working in university ministry in Sydney. She is 26 and has been married to Simon for three years. She has a heart to see women pursue their callings in serving God with their whole life.