Updated: Oct 30, 2018
Have you ever had a panic attack?
I had my first ever a couple years ago when my oldest child and I were in a bad car accident. We were headed to a ladies retreat at my friends wonderful little farm tucked away in rural Georgia. It was a rainy summer day. I'm talking "toad strangling" rain! It had not rained for a while so the roads were extra slick and the sheets of rain coming down made visibility difficult.
As we traveled down a major highway I noticed people were NOT slowing down, they were still going 70-80 miles per hour! (PEOPLE! SLOW DOWN IN THE RAIN!!) I was trying to get into the right lane so that I could slow down when I felt the car suddenly jeer and then jerk. As we hydroplaned down a steep embankment my thoughts rushed from hearing my husbands voice as he drilled into our children when they were learning to drive:
"If you ever hydroplane remember: turn the steering wheel IN the direction your wheels are going and tap DON'T slam on your breaks."
"Jenn has only been married for a few months and I'm going to kill her before she gets to really experience life!"
The car quickly headed into the woods at the bottom of the embankment, hitting several trees before coming to a stop, and all I knew to do was call on the name of Jesus.The airbags deployed at impact, the horn was stuck, smoke was bellowing through the air vents, and a tree branch hit the windshield on the passenger side just as I saw my daughter lunge forward; stopping just shy of the windshield. Praise God we were both wearing our seatbelts and hers caught her stopping her head from being bashed. (PEOPLE! ALWAYS WEAR YOUR SEATBELT!!)
All of this happened in the span of a few minutes, seconds even. But it felt like we were moving in super slow motion. I held it together during those seconds, even managing to ask Jennifer if she was okay. But seeing the smoke begin at impact caused panic like I have never known to rise up in me.
"We need to get out of here! The car is going to catch fire! We've got to get out! I think it's burning! It might blow up! We need to get out!"
I'm sure Jenn answered me but I didn't hear her voice. I franticly opened my door and started running out of the woods. Jenn's door was blocked by fallen branches and she was having trouble getting out. I left her there, struggling to get out of what I thought was a burning car that could explode at any moment. What kind of mother does that? Who leaves their child in a car that could possibly be on fire? It took me months to forgive myself for that and even longer to stop having nightmares about it. But that's what happens in a panic attack, you aren't able to think clearly or make rational decisions.
As I turned the corner out of the woods I was met by a man who had just happened to see our car as it headed into the woods. I collapsed into his arms as he asked, "Is anyone else with you?" I was unable to speak. It was like my mind couldn't find the words and when it did my mouth couldn't form them.
About that time Jennifer came running from the woods. She began talking to this man, whose name I found out later was Michael. By this time other cars had stopped and their occupants came to help us. Complete strangers getting out in the pouring rain to help complete strangers. (PEOPLE! ALWAYS TRY TO HELP OTHERS! When it's in your power to do so, stop to help someone in need or in trouble. It's Biblical: "Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone - especially to those in the family of faith." Galatians 6:10)
I had moments of lucidity. I called my husband but I don't remember what I said. I called my friend who was waiting on our arrival. Again, I don't remember what I said. I remember looking at Jenn amongst these people we didn't know. I remember looking down at my legs, already bruising from the impact. I remember I kept bending down because they hurt so much. At one point I heard Jennifer say, "I need to go. Mamas having a panic attack." And I remember thinking, "Is that what this is?"
Another complete stranger came up to me. He gently placed his hands on my shoulders. He began calmly talking to me, "My name is Joseph. What's yours?" Somehow I managed to answer him. "Jane, you've been in a car accident. Do you remember?" I think I nodded my head. "You're okay. Your legs are hurt. Do you want to sit in my car while we wait for the ambulance to get here?" Then he gently led me to his car and offered me a bottle of water. He calmed me.
The other people, including Jennifer, gathered around the car. The faint sound of sirens wafted over the roar of cars passing us and the patter of the rain as it continued to pour. The sheriff deputy arrived first and as he did some of the people made their way back to their cars and onto the highway, all soaking wet from standing in the rain to be there for complete strangers. Then the ambulance arrived and a few more people left. I remember Jennifer and Michael talking to the sheriff deputy. I remember him asking me for my license, which of course was in the car with everything else! I suppose Jennifer walked with him to retrieve it.
I remember Joseph talking to the EMTs as they transported me from his car to the ambulance. They wanted to take me to the hospital but I didn't want to leave Jennifer. The same mama who moments before had franticly run from her now was afraid to leave her standing on the side of the road with all of our luggage, waiting in the pouring rain for our friend to come pick her up. Joseph assured me he would wait with her. He calmed me.
The ambulance left and as we sped away I could see Jennifer there with Joseph and the sheriff deputy. The EMTs were talking to me but I was beginning to panic again. They started an IV and gave me something to calm me down.
A few days later as I lay in bed resting my very bruised and hurting body, I tried to remember all the details of this accident but everything was sketchy. Panic makes you unable to fully comprehend what is happening around you.
Panic is defined as: a sudden overwhelming fear, with or without cause, that produces hysterical or irrational behavior.
Panic attack is defined as: an intense attack of anxiety characterized by feelings of impending doom and trembling, sweating, pounding heart, and other physical symptoms.
Panic can spread to other people but a panic attack is personal.
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health about four million people or 5% of adults in the US suffer from panic attacks. Most of the articles I've read share similar techniques for handling a panic attack: breathe deeply and slowly, relax your muscles, tell yourself you are in control, leave a situation if needed and if possible. These are all good things to remember but I would like to suggest another way.
Study the Psalms.
Of course this is not a suggestion for the moment you are IN an attack but a way to help prevent an attack! As I studied the Psalms I came to the conclusion that David (the author of most of the Psalms) must have suffered from panic attacks. Now I'm no Biblical scholar or theologian but listen to these phrases:
"In a panic I cried out..." Psalm 31:22
"My heart pounds in my chest..."Psalm 55:4
"Fear and trembling overwhelm me..." Psalm 55:5
"...my heart is overwhelmed within me..." Psalm 61:2
"I am losing all hope. I am paralyzed with fear." Psalm 143:5
Those sound a lot like a panic attack to me. I never want to feel the way I felt the day of our accident again, so I set out on a quest to find the best way to prevent another panic attack. Many articles talked about "training your brain", "have confidence in yourself", and "stand up for yourself". The Psalms offer a better way.
As I studied I made four lists:
What is happening?
What will I do?
What am I praying?
What God will do.
I then read through the Psalm I was studying and marked each word or phrase that would go in each of these lists with a different color. Then I wrote those words and phrases under the correct list.
These are my lists from my study of Psalm 55, which I think is a very good example of one of David's panic attacks:
What is happening?
overwhelmed by troubles
enemies: shout loud and wicked threats, bring trouble on him, hunt him down
terror of death assaults
fear and trembling overwhelm
can't stop shaking
violence and conflict
everything is falling apart
threats and cheating
many still oppose
enemies refuse to change
betrayed by his friend
friend: broke promises, heart at war, daggers underneath his words
What will I do?
call out for help
cry out in my distress, constantly
give my burdens to the Lord
trust God to save me
What am I praying?
Listen and answer me!
What God will do:
hear my voice
keep me safe
humble my enemies
take care of me
not permit me to slip and fall
send wicked down to pit
I then memorized the words under the list of what God will do. Now when I begin to feel anxious or panic begins rising up in me, I remember what God will do, I remind myself that He is in control, and I allow His Spirit within me to calm me.
So here are my five steps to prevent a panic attack:
1) Place the situation in God's hands. Breathe deeply. As you breathe in say the name of Jesus. As you breathe out say the word "help".
Psalm 40:13: "Please, Lord, rescue me! Come quickly, Lord, and help me!"
2) Allow His Spirit within you to calm you. Pray.
Psalm 143:10: "Teach me to do You will, for You are my God. May Your gracious Spirit lead me forward on firm footing."
3) Nevertheless, God. Remind yourself that God is in control.
Psalm 31:14-15a: "But I trust in You, Lord, I say, 'You are my God. My times are in Your hands.'"
4) Increase time in His Word. God's Word is active and alive and meditating on the Bible can help calm us in times of stress.
Psalm 119:28: "I weep with sorrow, encourage me with Your word."
5) Cease striving. Remind yourself that God is with you always.
Psalm 16:8: "I know the Lord is always with me. I will not be shaken, for He is right beside me."
Panic attacks are real and they are scary. Before June 17, 2016 I had only helplessly watched as one of my children went through many such attacks. I would try to calm her to no avail, many times only making things worse. I knew she was experiencing a real emotion though I couldn't understand exactly what she was going through. Now I know. And I pray neither of us ever has to feel that emotion again. That's why I'm training my brain to look to God. That's why I'm placing my confidence in the Lord. That's why I'm standing still and letting God fight my battles. Truly God is the One Who can prevent me from going into full panic mode as I rest in Him each day and call on Him as those frantic, anxious feelings begin bubbling up.
While I realize for that 5% of US adults that suffer from panic attacks on a regular basis there is a need for medical intervention; for those of us who simply find ourselves overwhelmed or panicked on a less frequent basis, this strategy can really help. I hope it helps you!
Come back next week when we open the door to thankfulness!
Until then, God bless and keep you,
*PSA: When your airbags deploy the chemicals released to cause them to inflate produce smoke when they combine which means your car is probably not on fire and about to explode - don't panic! Unless of course you smell gas and see flames. Then you should get out and away as quickly as possible - but still, don't panic!
**It did not escape my attention that the two gentlemen who helped us the most were named Michael and Joseph. (Michael - God's Arch Angel and Joseph - the tender earthly daddy of Jesus.) I was able to call Michael and personally thank him a few days after our accident. He said he was afraid he was going to find things much worse and then I came running from the woods and his heart was glad. Joseph left his card with Jennifer. I tried several times to call the number on the card only to be greeted with that annoying little noise that comes across the line followed by, "we're sorry but the number you have reached is no longer in service." I tried emailing him several times as well only to have it bounce back to my inbox as undeliverable. I've often wondered if we encountered an angel in disguise that day!
***If you would like a printable copy of these five steps to prevent panic sign top for my email list!
****A few more of my favorite calming Psalms:
Psalm 9:9-10: "The Lord is a shelter for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. Those who know Your name trust in You, for You, O Lord, do not abandon those who search for You."
Psalm 34:2,4,6-7: "I will boast only in the Lord; let all who are helpless take heart...I prayed to the Lord, and He answered me. He freed me from all my fears...In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened, He saved me from all my troubles. For the angel of the Lord is a guard; He surrounds and defends all who fear Him."
Psalm 62:1-2, 8: "I wait quietly before God, for my victory comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will never be shaken...O my people, trust in Him at all times. Pour out your heart to Him, for God is our refuge."
Why not spend sometime this week doing your own study of the Psalms. Make your own lists. Write out some verses that cause you to feel calm so you will have them ready the next time you begin feeling panic rising within you!