I did something death-defying last week. At least it felt death-defying, kind of like a paratrooper with acrophobia taking the first step out of an airplane. I did it even though I dreaded what might happen, even though the apprehension of it kept me up at night for days before.
What was this death-defying act?
I got my blood pressure checked at the doctor’s office.
Do you feel set up? I’ve given you big buildup that seems to have prepared you for a disappointing letdown. “What’s so death-defying about getting your blood pressure checked?”
Only this . . . a year or so ago when they cuffed my arm and the automatic sphygmomanometer pumped it up, my heart started pounding like a John Bonham drumbeat and sweat suddenly soaked my skin and at the same time my respiration revved up and I thought I was going to pass out because I couldn’t suck in enough air. I felt like (and I mean this literally) I was going to die.
I had a panic attack.
Obviously a blood pressure check is not a dangerous invasive procedure. It probably involves less risk than your doctor hitting your knee with that little rubber hammer to check your reflexes.
But that’s the thing about panic attacks. Like the unexpected rise in the polls of certain presidential candidates, panic attacks don’t make sense. They just happen.
The nurse’s reaction to my blood pressure reading did not reduce my sphygmomanometer-triggered panic attack. Her eyes opened wide and she looked like she was going to have her own attack. She asked me if I was having pains in my chest or down my arms.
That certainly helped.
After a few minutes the attack abated and I didn’t have to make yet another wasted trip to the emergency room that wound up finding nothing wrong. I’ve had a handful of those fruitless ER visits over the past 30 years or so.
All of this is a way of easing into a confession I am going to make in this blog post hoping it will maybe help other folks . . .
Hi, my name is Dave, and I battle anxiety and panic attacks.
I originally wrote, “I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks,” but although there definitely is suffering the reality is that it’s a battle not to let this part of me control my life.
Also, I hate the flaccidity of the word “anxiety.” I hope pairing it with “battle” may endow it with more heft. “Anxious” is something you get about whether you’re going to make the movie on time when the service at dinner is slow, or maybe even something positive like, “I’m so anxious to meet you.”
Anxiety, on the other hand, is like being on a roller coaster that has just crested the first hill, the moment you both experience the drop and anticipate it continuing. It’s the moment when, as my daughter said when she was young, “Your belly goes up.” Except that anxiety is not a moment. It is a state of being that goes on and on. Even if you are thrilled by roller coasters, being trapped hurtling downhill for days, hours, weeks, even months with your “belly up” is not exciting, it is exhausting.
Let me be clear – in this roller coaster analogy I don’t mean “downhill” emotionally. I’m not talking about depression, although the hopelessness that is sustained anxiety can lead to or exacerbate depression. I’m talking specifically about the sensation, the reptile-brain response of “get me out of here” and heightened sensitivity to, well, everything.
Imagine trying to work or watch a movie or read a book or, God forbid, sleep while all the input to your brain is on overload, while neurons send out messages to every muscle and nerve, “Watch out! Be ready!”
The battle is trying to live life, to get stuff done, to be a tolerable human being, when your mind and body are in this amped-up state.
A panic attack is a hyperactive friend who drops by unexpectedly and causes chaos for an evening but then goes home.
Anxiety is the relative who comes to stay “for a few nights” but after one week turns into two and that turns into a month, they’re in everybody’s way and you can’t figure out how to get them to leave.
Not everyone who battles anxiety experiences panic attacks, and vice versa, but they are related. Panic attacks are short-term, amplified versions of the downhill coaster ride. They are more of a “Tower of Terror” plunge straight down that goes on longer than the few seconds of the Disney World drop. My panic attacks last up to 20 or 30 minutes, and sometimes the come in clusters.
Although anxiety may get in the way of life and even cause some folks to think they might prefer the alternative, a panic attack is when your body and your brain get into a feedback loop of “You are going to die RIGHT NOW!” You experience dreadful wonder – “My heart is pounding right out of my chest, how can it keep beating so hard? How fast can it go without stopping? Am I going to pass out . . . and not wake back up?” (That last one’s particularly pleasant to pop into your head while you’re driving.)
I’ve dealt with panic attacks for as long as I can remember. The first really bad one – my first trip to the emergency room – happened when I was 24. Sometimes they come on when I’m stressed, but others crash in for no reason. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night out of a seemingly peaceful sleep, and five minutes later I’m up and have gone from being worried about waking up Karen to being afraid my heart is going to explode.
After a few nights of that, insomnia sets in because sleep no longer seems restful, but rather just the prelude to unpleasantness. Then not sleeping leaves you more vulnerable to anxiety, which interferes with sleep, which leads to anxiety, and so on and so on . . .
The battle with panic attacks is not just with their occurrence, but with the foreboding feeling that they may happen any time and that you may do something to trigger them.
Anxiety and panic attacks are strange in that they are not about being afraid of something, they are just pure fear. It’s kind of like being afraid of fear . . . once you’ve had one or two you start dreading the next one.
The battle with anxiety is the battle against playing it safe.
Getting to be a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Jeopardy!” were two highlights of my life. But my biggest fear about going on those shows – and the thing I had to fight even to audition – was that I would have a panic attack and make a fool of myself . . . or die. Or maybe I would be like that guy who passed out at his podium during Final Jeopardy. How embarrassing!
Yeah it’s irrational, and I told myself it’s irrational, but this stuff sits in the reptile brain where the only response is “fight or flight” and reason doesn’t penetrate very easily.
The death-on-a-gameshow thing was definitely an exaggerated fear, but it was not helped by what happened the Sunday before the week I went to New York to tape Millionaire. On that morning I was greeted at church by a very kind woman who said, “Oh thank God you’re here! I had a dream last night you died of a massive heart attack!”
Thanks for that.
When panic attacks happen, my heart can beat 180 times a minute or more for what seems like forever. When your heart’s racing that fast and you’re not doing anything to provoke it, like exercising, it makes you, well, panic. “Am I having a heart attack? Is this going to give me a heart attack? Should I go to the hospital, call 911? Relax, it’s just another panic attack. But what if it’s not, what if it’s something more serious this time? How will I know the difference?”
I’ve had panic attacks in the most inconvenient situations. Only once when I’ve been preaching, though. There’s nothing like trying to get through a sermon in front of a church full of people when your brain is telling you, “This is it, buddy.” It’s not just the fear of dying, it’s dying of embarrassment that someone might notice.
Sometimes there’s an explanation for a panic attack. I later found out the preaching one happened because someone had made regular coffee in the decaffeinated coffee pot. I have learned not to drink caffeinated coffee or tea – if you happen to be my server at a restaurant and I ask twice, “Are you sure that’s decaf?” that is why.
I’ve had many years to learn about panic attacks. But anxiety is a more recent addition to my oeuvre of unease. I never really dealt with anxiety until about a year ago. I had the “joy” of going through the busiest season of my job – the time before Christmas – feeling like I had started each day by swallowing a handful of amphetamines. Yahoo!
It was then I knew I needed to get help.
One of the reasons I’m writing and posting this is to encourage others battling anxiety and panic attacks to get help if you need it. I want you to know you’re not alone. I want others to have some idea of what we’re going through.
As a pastor who battles anxiety and panic attacks, I want to assure you that anxiety and panic attacks are in no way a reflection of your faith or lack of faith.
Panic attacks and anxiety are the result of chemicals in your brain and your body going haywire, perhaps exacerbated by something else physical. (I have a mitral valve prolapse which apparently makes me more prone to this stuff). They may have their roots in something that happened to you or some other life event. Also involved are patterns of thinking that exacerbate the effect on your life.
It is usually just ignorance when folks “helpfully” say to someone battling anxiety that they just need to pray more or read the Bible more or have more faith because then surely they wouldn’t be so anxious.
Somehow those religious folks never say anything like that to people with diabetes or thyroid issues or other dysfunctions of body chemistry.
Those same “helpful” people will say, “You know, Jesus himself said ‘Don’t be anxious.’” And it’s true, he did, but not to make people feel guilty (which only leads to more anxiety) but in the context of a promise that God would provide for every need. What Jesus said is really more, “You don’t need to be anxious because I love you so much,” but like lots of other positive Biblical stuff we turn God’s promises into a gavel of judgment and a hammer with which to beat folks over the head.
Or to beat ourselves over our own heads.
Don’t listen to the people who tell you that getting help is a sign of weakness. In a culture that values the rugged individual, it takes guts to reach out for help.
Like any medical issue, anxiety and panic attacks sometimes need to be treated. Therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc. are the armorers in the battle against anxiety. They have weapons so you don’t fight the battle unarmed.
For some folks, medications are the weapons they need. I take a pill each day that helps mute the palpitations that my heart valve thing can cause, and I also have a prescription for Xanax to take if I feel a panic attack coming on. But here’s the thing – my bottle of Xanax just expired and I’ve only taken one – knowing I have it has been enough.
When the anxiety got really bad last year, I tried a couple of medications for it, but they made me feel worse. I decided to be done with them when I had to call my wife to come pick me up at work because my legs were shaking so much I couldn’t walk home.
We’re not talking a long hike here – I live less than 100 yards from the church where I serve.
That doesn’t mean medications won’t work for you or someone you care about. It also doesn’t mean I won’t need a med specifically for anxiety in the future. There are lots to choose from, and if you need meds it doesn’t make you any weaker or a loser any more than a diabetic who needs insulin.
But, like some diabetics can manage their illness with lifestyle changes, sometimes anxiety and panic attacks can be handled without medication. Thankfully, I found an awesome therapist who not only gave me weapons – new patterns of thinking – to battle anxiety and panic attacks but also helped me realize I already had the power to utilize them. Over a period of months, I learned to fight the battle and actually win sometimes. I learned to tell if anxiety or a panic attack was imminent and what I could do about it. I learned what triggered my anxiety and panic attacks.
Although I “graduated” from counseling, I’m still learning. I’m still battling. As you know from the beginning of this post, getting my blood pressure checked is a trigger I’m still struggling with.
But that’s okay. I am much better off today than I was a year ago. With Christmas coming again things are just as busy at the church, and I am somewhat stressed, but I’m not experiencing anxiety. I’m sleeping at night.
And I’m not calling my wife for a ride home.
Which brings me to one more thing.
Don’t fight this battle alone.
My wife Karen has lived with my panic attacks since we’ve been married, and she lived through the anxiety I experienced last year. She encouraged me to get help, and walked with me through the process. You need someone on your side and by your side. Perhaps you can start the conversation with someone by having them read this post. Feel free to share it any way it might be helpful.
Finally, if you do happen to be a Christian, I can assure you that you are not alone! You are not faithless or faith-low because you have anxiety and/or panic attacks, neither are they a sign that God has somehow deserted you. I Peter 5:7 says, “Cast your anxiety on God because God cares for you.” That is an invitation, not a command. It is an invitation that implies that we will have anxieties – that some stress is normal. But that verse – and the witness of the Bible as a whole – lets us know that God is not some detached supreme being in heaven, but God is intimately involved in our lives, even in our anxieties (and panic attacks).
God’s promise in Christ is not that we will never have any problems (including anxiety and panic attacks) but that we will never walk through them alone.
Oh, and by the way . . .
I never let you know how the Battle of the Sphygmomanometer turned out last week. Although I was nervous (okay, a little anxious) about it and almost cancelled the appointment, I did show up. My blood pressure was a little elevated but I got through it without a panic attack. I’m now taking my blood pressure regularly at home (where it’s normal).
I know the battle will continue next time I have a doctor’s appointment or something else happens that has triggered a panic attack before. My heart valve issue isn’t going away so there will probably be more palpitations and panic attacks. I know that stress is a fact of life and that not managing it can lead to anxiety, or maybe it will just happen because the brain chemicals get messed up.
But I will keep fighting the battle not to let anxiety rule my life. I will not give in to fear. I am going to keep trying new things and going new places and being the best pastor I know how to be (and going on game shows should the opportunity arise). I know I am not in this battle alone.
And neither are you.