As a follow-up to my last post on anxiety, I would like to share some practical tools that I used to fight through my fear and panic attacks. Though I understand that there are many other ways to manage or prevent the symptoms associated with a panic attack, I will cover the main three ways that helped me. If the following suggestions do not work for you, you can tweak them a bit or change them up to meet your preferences. The main goal I sought after was to replace my negative thoughts with thoughts about God’s promises of protection.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) for Mental Disorders defines panic attacks as “an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and during which time, four or more of the following symptoms occur…
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
- Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensation)
- Chills or heat sensations“
These often came out of nowhere, when my guard was down, and when I least expected it. I could just be going about my day or even asleep in the middle of the night when a sudden onslaught of symptoms (italicized above) would appear.
When these attacks came, I got the feeling that I couldn’t get my breath under control and that I was suffocating. A psychologist told me that the first thing to do when feeling panicky, was to practice deep breathing exercises: focus on counting to five while breathing in and also out. This same advice can be found on multiple websites like in a psychology newsletter. I was told that if I was not shutting out all of the anxious thoughts, then I was doing it wrong, and needed to focus more on the breath. Trying to shove these thoughts away while attempting a breathing exercise just frustrated me and compounded the panic. What I found helped me most was, instead of pushing thoughts away, replacing them with truths from God’s Word.
During these episodes, my husband would often sit up with me in the middle of the night. He helpfully suggested that I quote Scripture aloud as I practiced deep breathing, instead of just counting. He would guide me through my breath and read verses to me, having me echo back certain verses. It was during this season, I decided to memorize Psalms 16 and 18 in order to have scripture ready to recount during a panic attack. There were times I could only say one verse over and over again because that was all I could recall in the moment. That was okay! I was still replacing my panicked thoughts with godly thoughts. Quoting scripture from memory to the rhythm of a controlled breathing exercise calmed me down better than anything else I could find.
Along similar lines, late one night, I called a dear friend of mine who has a biblical counseling background. (I wanted to give my husband a break from disrupted sleep!) I told her how my experience with breathing exercises was frustrating me. She had a great suggestion: “You have a vocal education degree. Would the act of singing control your breath?” I hadn’t even thought of that! And my sweet friend, who at the time lived hundreds of mile away, sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” with me over the phone. Muscle memory served to steady my breath, the lyrics of the hymn sank into my mind, and peace filled my heart. Hymns and worship songs are wonderful reminders of God’s truth from His word. The simple act of singing causes us to slow our minds and breathing down to a reflective state so we can chew on the lyrics longer.
It was incredibly helpful to have these two strategies as tools in my growing arsenal of ways to turn these panic attacks around. Since most of my attacks would come in the middle of the night, I tried to be proactive and prepare for exactly what I would do if I experienced one. Prior to my bedtime routine, I set up an area that I could retreat to if the feelings of overwhelming anxiety arose. I had pens, paper, and cards ready on a table in a corner of the house that wouldn’t disturb sleeping family members. The cards had ready-made verses and quotes on them that I could read, meditate on, memorize, and pray over. The paper and pens were for me to write out my thoughts and prayers. I also had a list of people to pray for. I took the lead of King David from Psalm 63, which was written while he was hiding in the wilderness of Judah. In verses 5-7 he wrote:
“My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.”
I have this mentality that if I don’t do something the most efficient way, I’m doing it all wrong and it was all just a waste of time. Lying in bed with the lights out and not sleeping felt like a colossal waste of my time and I HATED it. You know what’s not particularly helpful when you’re already panicking? Feeling like your panic is a waste of precious time. I realized after studying Psalm 63, that time spent meditating on God’s word and praying are of eternal value. His word will never return void and will always accomplish what it promises (Isaiah 55:11). And conversing with the Lord is the exact opposite of wasting time. It’s the epitome of time well-spent because it is an investment into my most important relationship. To highlight the value of prayer, there were times when even Jesus (who was God in the flesh) stayed up during the night to pray, after exhausting days of healing and preaching (Luke 6:12).
Some of the other ways I battled my panic attacks were to listen to sermons, or podcasts, or listen to the Bible read aloud on various apps. I would recount Scripture while I got a glass of water or call someone to confide in. Above all, filling my mind with Scripture gave me the focus and stability I needed to prevent and emerge from my panic and anxiety.
Again, these are just the most helpful ways that I found for me. What have you found to be the most encouraging or helpful? Which Scripture verses are you clinging to for comfort? I’d love to hear your experience whatever that looks like!