Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Breaking free from Panic Attacks

The tremor had begun with a slight twitching of the face and hands, and then rippled through her body like electric shock waves.  She radiated sheer terror and, like a drowning person, could not stop gasping for breath.  Her eyes held the look of someone gazing into the face of their most dreaded fear.

Leaning forward in my chair I spoke quietly, reassuringly, “Mary, you’re having another panic attack.  We know part of what is causing it so let’s start by slowing things down a bit.  Shall we?  Lower your head and breathe slowly now.  We want to prevent you from hyper-ventilating.”

Slowly – ever so slowly – her pulse rate dropped and breathing returned to normal, even though her hands still shook.

Living with a Panic Disorder

My first encounter with panic attacks several years ago had created some confusion and anxiety on my part because I didn’t know how to treat this problem from a counseling perspective.  I did realize that most authorities feel the first attack is best understood as an Adrenalin rush that is in some cases not explainable, often beginning at an intense moment of anxiety.  When the panic hits, the victim is absolutely terrified.

Some of the Symptoms of a Panic Disorder 

  • Sweating
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dizziness
  • Hot flashes
  • Severe discomfort
  • Extreme fear
  • Hyperventilation
  • Tingling sensations
  • Chills

Traumatic Life Experiences can be the Genesis of a Panic Disorder

It was evident that Mary had become agoraphobic (one who fears the marketplace or being in crowded open spaces).  Her initial attack was coming at a time when she was struggling with depression and a worsening marriage situation.  Fleeing for home after that first encounter, although she was fine after a few hours, she began to associate her feelings of frightening panic with the place she was when it first happened.  Later in the week she headed back to the same store only to find herself panicking as she approached the door.  Wrestling with her emotions she pressed on into the building but was suddenly gripped by a cocoon of fear that seemed about to suffocate her.

 The Emergence of a Habitual Cycle of Panic Attacks

“It was as if I couldn’t breathe or even think”, she recalled with emotion.  I had to get out of there as fast as I could!”

When she had regained her composure, I commented, “You see, Mary, as we were recounting that terrifying moment in the store, your mind triggered the memory of that event so clearly it was as if it were happening again.  Rather than avoiding that experience, we want to put it into perspective and clarify what really happened that day.”

Breaking the Hold of Panic Driven Fear


She continued to tremble as I went on.  “Part of the problem is physiological, and you are on a specialized medication to help correct the noradrenaline imbalance in your neurological system.  The second aspect of your problem is psychological and needs to be thought through very carefully.  You have actually fed your panic attack tendencies by avoidance patterns such as staying away from that store.  Now we need to slowly walk you through that door to help you regain the confidence that you have nothing to fear in that situation.”

Facing the Origin of our Fear creates Confidence and Empowerment 

At the suggestion of returning to the dreaded store her head dropped and she began shredding a piece of tissue in her hands. 
“Mary, I said slowly”, I reassured her.

Looking thoughtfully at her I recalled the fact that although she had come to Christ for salvation several years ago, there seemed no real evidence of His presence in her life.  Was it possible that Mary was not truly born again?  If not, she had never met the issue of Christ’s Lordship.

The Foundation of the Peace of God 

“The third aspect of your problem is spiritual”, I explained.  “You need the control and peace that only Jesus Christ can give you as you work through this and other problems in your life.  These panic attacks are but a symptom of the anxiety that is churning inside you.”

“But I have never been able to trust anyone that much!”  She looked up with eyes filled with tears and anguish, “I have to stay in control, If I’m not in control I get hurt!”

“And what has your control accomplished?” I countered.  “As you turn over the control of your life to Jesus Christ He will give you direction through His Word as to how to tackle the challenges you are facing.”  I paused and then said gently, “You cannot cast your cares upon Him totally unless you yield to Him completely.  You must let go.”

I picked up a Bible that was on a table nearby and opened it. "Mary, do you mind if I read something from the Word of God that speaks specifically to the very things that you are struggling with?" 

"I would like that, thank you." she said in a whisper.

""I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

I turned to her and smiled as I said, "Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace, so it makes sense that if we want inner peace, real peace, it should come from the only one who can truly give deep, comforting peace...especially when you are dealing with panic attacks."

I handed her the bible and said, "Here Mary, this is for you, I already signed your name in it, so take it with you and read it with a heart that is open."

She thanked me and asked me to pray for her so I did. Mary stood there with her head bowed, and with hands that gripped her new Bible life it was a life preserver. 

Finding the Courage to Challenge your Fear 

It was a quiet Tuesday afternoon when I leaned against a stop sign waiting, my eyes focused on the doorway of a local store.  My apparent composure was no reflection of the tension within as I stood watching like a secret agent on a mission of grave importance.  Time had passed, as had more counseling sessions, before Mary had yielded the throne of her heart to the Lord Jesus Christ….

Suddenly the store doors opened and Mary stepped out into the sunlight.  Eyes bright with joy she raised her right arm, thumb pointed heavenward with an enthusiastic thrust of victory!

As she turned to run across the street, it seemed as if I was watching a very young child released from a year of school, eager and ready for a summer of adventure.

If you struggle with a panic disorder, consider checking this resource link for some helpful strategies in dealing with and overcoming Panic Attacks.