"I fight: not as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection..." 1 Corinthians 9:26 (NASB)
Have you ever had a panic attack? Some people describe them as feeling like they have to get up and run, others say they feel like their skin is on too tight and have the feeling of suffocation. No matter how you interpret the feelings, a panic attack can be a frightening thing to experience.
If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that I focus on the heart extensively here because the Bible has so much to say about it and how the heart determines our actions. It should not surprise you that the heart is a major player in a panic attack.
In Scripture the heart is the center of your core desires. Your mind, will and emotions are servants of your heart in meeting its needs. The heart is what causes the mind to think on what it thinks, the emotions to react the way they do, and the will to act the way it does. Matt. 6:21
Thoughts are what drive a panic attack. Something a person is thinking about is driving the emotions and triggering responses in the body’s endocrine systems. As an example of this, think about someone who thinks they hear footsteps in the house in the middle of the night. The simple thought of, “Intruder!” sets off a chain of events in the body. Physical systems are God-given and intended to warn us of danger, and give us the sudden bursts of energy and strength needed in an emergency situation.
You may have heard of the “fight or flight” urge. This instant impulse is driven by the thought that you are in danger. Your thoughts race with that possibility and your body then releases a flood of various hormones into your bloodstream that accelerates your heart rate, allows you to increase lung capacity, and gives you in some cases superhuman strength! This all takes place in fractions of seconds, and it is all begun with a thought! It may be that there were no footsteps at all just the settling of your house. However, your body reacts the same way to imagined danger or stress as it does to real danger or stress.
A person who has panic attacks is operating the same way as a person who believes they are in danger even when there is no danger at all. The thoughts the person is thinking evoke such strong emotions that they are able to cause their body to think there is danger when in reality there is not.
A person experiencing a panic attack does not understand that their thoughts are what bring on these attacks because it feels like something powerful and beyond their control sweeps over them. I have heard it described like something they can sense coming but cannot stop, and that it is like something lurking around the corner waiting to jump out and attack them. The sensations are so unpleasant that the sufferer will do almost anything to hold them at bay. Many times they alter their entire lifestyle to avoid a panic attack by discontinuing activities and even relationships to avoid experiencing those feelings.
The world becomes smaller and smaller for them as more and more things cause a panic attack and what we ultimately see is a person develops a fear of the fear.
Often, people who struggle with fear, worry and anxiety react rather than think. Reacting becomes habitual and so the person falls into a pattern of habitual response and it becomes “second nature’ to “freak out.” What the person does not realize is that they have actually trained themselves to respond this way. By the time they seek help they usually have done it for so long they do not know how to respond differently. Their feelings (which are a normal part of life) have come to control their life.
When a person is experiencing a panic attack the actual attack is the end result, not the beginning of the process. The process began with a series of thoughts that resulting in having the feelings of panic. Feelings are indicators of what is going on inside in the heart (inner-man).
To overcome the habitual response of panic attacks you must retrain your thinking. You must be renewed in the pattern of your mind (Rom, 12:2) and learn to think about things that are true and real (Phil 4:8-10).
It sounds so simple, doesn't it? The truth is that it will be hard work and you will need help. Ask a friend or loved one who can remind you to take your racing thoughts captive (2 Cor. 10:5-6) and speak truth to yourself instead of the lies that feed the panic. It may take time, but the more you practice this the less you will react the old way. You will be transformed by the renewing of your mind from a person who is overrun by feelings and emotions to one who is full of faith and confidence in the power of the risen Christ.