Counsel for Christians in Crisis: I Have Panic Attacks

No, a panic attack is not what you feel when you have responsibility for the gospel meeting or have to teach a Sunday school class of 5-year-olds. A panic attack is something far more overwhelming and distressing to those who experience it. Someone might describe it as a feeling of impending doom or as though everything is totally out of control. It is a spontaneous episode of intense fear that begins abruptly and can last for several minutes to an hour. Any combination of palpitations, sweating, trembling, chest pain, feelings of smothering, shortness of breath, dizziness, tingling, fear of dying, or of going crazy may be experienced. It is not “all in the head” as some might think. It is a total body response to a perceived but unreal threat. Usually, no discernible “trigger” is known by the victim.

When panic attacks become recurrent, or when a single attack so distresses a person that he alters his life (fear of going out of the house, etc.), it then receives the diagnosis, “Panic Disorder.” A panic attack is so distressing that the fear of another such attack frequently terrorizes its victim, so that places and situations which might precipitate such an attack are avoided and life becomes restricted as a result.

Since Scripture has no actual example of anyone suffering from a panic attack within its history, one could well ask why this should be included in a Scripturally-based magazine. While there are no Biblical examples of individuals with panic disorder, there are spiritual people who do experience this problem. You are not a spiritual failure because you are having a panic attack. And since this is a reality of life, we can expect with confidence that the Word of God will provide us insight into its cause and management.

Little is known about the “why” of panic disorder, but “what” happens is better known. There appears to be a genetic tendency to panic disorder and some specific personality types that make some individuals more susceptible than others. When this “matrix” is exposed to certain life experiences, panic attacks can be precipitated. While the biochemistry is complex and still a subject of research, one component of it is well known to all of us. We possess a nervous system which is not under our voluntary control; it is called the autonomic nervous system. Everyone knows what it is to blush when embarrassed and the harder we try to stop feeling embarrassed, the worse it becomes. This is controlled involuntarily by this nervous system. This is the famous “fight or flight” system which enables individuals to feats of strength or speed under the stress of a severe emergency that they would not otherwise be able to perform. This system responds involuntarily to what the brain views as a threat of some kind. As a result of this nervous system being activated, a flood of chemicals are poured into your blood stream which affect everything from your heart rate, respiration, alertness, and sense of danger. Think of a panic attack as the body’s “normal” response, but at an “abnormal” time; it is an attack out of context.

It is much more difficult to explain why these attacks occur. Childhood traumas, emotionally upsetting experiences, strange associations which our minds make with places, events, words and consequences – these and a host of other things can be buried in our minds. Something “triggers” the fight or flight mechanism in our bodies and the attack ensues. As a result, the reason for a panic attack is not easily discernible.

Medication may be needed in the majority of cases and should not be avoided because of a sense of guilt over using medication. But there is universal agreement that there are things an individual can also implement to help in combating the problem. Some of the advice offered by psychologists and counselors has within it an echo of Scriptural advice given for other reasons but applicable here.

“Whatsoever things are true … think on these things” (Phil 4:8). How does this apply to a panic attack? Your heart is racing, but that does not mean you are having a heart attack. You feel lightheaded, but that does not mean you will pass out. Your head is throbbing does not translate into a stroke. Do not exaggerate the symptoms, but evaluate and appreciate the reality of your situation.

“Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines … “ (S of S 2:15). Try to recognize the very early signs and symptoms of a panic attack before it becomes full blown. When an attack is full-blown, it can be difficult to think rationally and to apply the truth of Scripture to the situation. So, learning to detect the very first symptoms at the onset can be valuable. Don’t allow little foxes to grow and become overwhelming. Applying the suggested techniques of slow abdominal breathing, distraction, self-talk, and others can be helpful if you are able to apply these early, prior to the development of the attack.

“My times are in Thy hand” (Psa 31:15). Everyone who has experienced the distress and discomfort of a panic attack will attest that one of the greatest fears is that everything seems out of control; they feel death and doom is imminent. This may sound irrational to those who have never experienced this disorder, but it is virtually universal among those who have suffered from it. To feel that life is spinning out of control, that events are crashing down on you, and that you stand helpless before forces that are overwhelming, is the common lot of panic disorder’s victims.

Remind yourself that there is no panic before the throne in heaven. Remember that things are never “out of control” with God, and He is fully aware of all that is happening, and of its purpose. Once again, this may be of little solace when rational thinking is overwhelmed by fear and panic; but, if it can be verbally repeated to yourself in the early stage of panic, it may help to avoid the fear of loss of control. Learn to keep God as your fortress (Psa 46).

Panic disorder is one of the most distressing and paralyzing emotional difficulties; spiritual believers are not immune. Those who have never experienced an attack can only sympathize and support those who are afflicted. Those affected by it can take hope in the sovereign and controlling hand of God.

While Scripture is our ultimate guide, believers who wish to learn more about the symptoms of a panic disorder and both secular thinking and Scriptural can use the following references:

The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Spring 2006, p14-20 “Panic Attacks: Listen to the Messenger”