In the middle of the night, I flare up my arms as I sit up in bed. Where did that weight come from? Is someone sitting on my chest? Why can’t I breathe? Gasping for air, I begin to think, “I am going to die! I just want to breathe!” I call for help and am rushed to the hospital by my parents.
“There is nothing wrong with your body. You are healthy. You just had a panic attack,” said the doctor. Just a panic attack? I couldn’t breathe! There must be something wrong, I thought.
Through months of different appointments and many more of those nights (and days), I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder. I was 12 years old.
Anxiety ruled my life
As I moved forward from that season in my life, my battle with anxiety did not cease. I was anxious about everything, experiencing panic attacks regularly, and, when I was not facing the anxiety attacks, worrying about when the next one would come.
Throughout high school, I continued to learn how to “manage” my anxiety. I learned how to journal my anxiety attack symptoms, I learned how to box breathe, I began to recognize habits that relaxed me or that would help me to overcome my panic attacks, and I found friends whom I could tell about my anxiety.
Because I learned so much about how to live with anxiety, I was now able to feel normal, right? Wrong! Even with all of the helpful tips and tricks, I would have to call in sick for work because my hands would not stop shaking during a panic attack, I would lose endless hours of sleep, and I would worry over situations that I had created in my mind that had never happened and probably would never actually happen.
In addition to anxiety continuing to rule my life, I was plagued with comments from others that hurt me deeply. The comments included: “Stop worrying, it will be okay,” “Just get over it, you will figure it out,” and “It is all in your head, just stop thinking about it.” These comments wounded me deeply and became the thoughts that I would guilt myself with at night as I lay awake in bed, struggling to breathe through my next anxiety attack.
I am not sure if you can relate to my story, but I know that all of us wrestle with some form of worry and stress throughout our lives. For many of us, these worries and stresses are amplified through our battle with mental health, specifically anxiety.
If any of this relates to you, I want to encourage you by saying, there is hope! Yes, you are on an adventure through the cave system of mental health. Yet, in this dark tunnel, there is a light!
Light at the end of the tunnel
Through high school and college, whenever I heard someone say, “There is a light at the end of the tunnel, it will be all right!,” I felt like shouting back, “There is no light in my tunnel!” But today, I actually enjoy hearing that reminder. The reason for this change in my heart was the realization that there is actually a light in the depths of the deep tunnel I am in.
This reminder was given to me as I read through Psalm 139:11-12, where David writes,
“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
This verse reminds me that even though I feel like the battle I am in is hiding me in a deep and dark tunnel with no way out, I am not alone because God is the flashlight! There is nowhere we can go that is dark for God; the darkness shines like the day for God. And in times where we may not be able to see him, he sees us because we are not hidden by the darkness, and he will hold our hand as we walk through the dark tunnel of worry, anxiety and stress.
Take hold of God’s hand and trust him to lead you through this dark tunnel.
Walking with God in the tunnel
Often when I went for walks with a family member or friend, I would use that time to talk with them about my life, what I was thinking, and ask about their own thoughts. After I became aware of the fact that I was not walking through this dark tunnel of anxiety alone, but with God by my side, I began to talk to God as I walked with him as well!
At first, I found this to be difficult, as I was used to only talking to God through my prayer requests and to thank him for his blessings. But the longer I walked through the tunnel with God, the more I began to share with him how I was really feeling.
I also began to read the book of Psalms. I noticed that the writers did not hold back their feelings from God. The psalmists declared that they were lonely and hurting (Psalm 25:16), that they felt forgotten (Psalm 31:12), that their strength was dried up (Psalm 32:4), that their thoughts were troubled and they were scared and shaking (Psalm 55:2-5), and so much more. If the writers of the Bible could be honest with God, and God listened, then why couldn’t I be?
So I tried it! I tried to be honest with God. I poured my heart out. I told God my pain, my feelings, my worries, my hurt, my anger, my disappointment, my desires, and my hopes. And do you know what happened? It felt good. I felt a little bit better. I felt heard by God. I felt like I had been deeply listened to and cared for. My anxiety did not disappear, but I suddenly felt fully understood for the first time.
Be honest with God, he already knows what you are thinking–so share it with him. He will listen to you!
Switching who carries the backpack
This past summer I had the time to go to Tobermory, Ontario for a week of hiking. Each morning we would pack a lunch, some snacks for the day, and other supplies we might need into a backpack, and we would head off on a 5-6 hour hike. After an hour or so of hiking, the bag of supplies would become heavy and begin to slow down my ability to keep hiking. So, I would pass the bag to the next person. After letting go of the weight of that bag, I was able to feel a renewed strength to continue moving forward on our long journey.
My experience on the hikes this summer is no different than the ongoing process I am engaged in with my anxiety. As I walk and talk with God in the dark tunnel of anxiety, I can feel weighed down by all that I am carrying on my heart and mind. I feel like I am carrying not just one backpack, but hundreds!
When I feel the weight of all of those backpacks, I begin to panic and shut down, feeling like there is no way I can move forward another step. BUT, I have been learning how to take off those backpacks and let God carry them instead. By relinquishing my heavy load to God (who has never-ending strength), I can find the strength to stand up, take hold of God’s hand, and keep walking.
This process has not been easy, as many of my backpacks are labelled with very important things to me that I would prefer to keep in my hands to make sure I can care for them properly. My backpacks that are labelled “protecting my family from all harm,” “graduating from school and finding a good job,” and “planning my future” are the ones that I do not want to entrust to anyone else. But Jesus says in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, for I will give you rest.” Jesus is saying that I can trust him to carry my load, that he will allow me to find peace in trusting him with all of the backpacks that I find important. By allowing Jesus to carry my backpacks, I can continue to move forward and take one more step in the tunnel.
My backpacks that are labelled “protecting my family from all harm,” “graduating from school and finding a good job,” and “planning my future” are the ones that I do not want to entrust to anyone else.
You too can start identifying your backpacks to God and ask him to teach you how to trust him with each and every one of them.
Taking the backpack back
I am thankful that through learning how to walk with God, talk to him honestly, and surrender my backpacks of worries to him, I do not face daily anxiety attacks like I used to. Rather, they are becoming a rare occurrence in my day-to-day life.
Sometimes, however, I find myself taking back areas of my life (or backpacks) that I have previously surrendered to him. God does not give these bags back to me, but I take them back again, because I stop trusting that he will carry that backpack the way I think it should be carried. For example, I will take back the backpack of “the timing of events,” because I do not like waiting for God’s perfect timing in different areas of my life. It’s easy to stop trusting him with the timing of different things, and I try to make things happen in my own timing.
The backpacks I take back upon myself, I call anxiety triggers. By taking the backpack back upon myself, I begin to trip, stumble, grow tired, and face anxiety once again in that dark cave. Yet when I battle another anxiety attack, I am reminded that I do not need to face this alone. So again, I need to remind myself to rely on holding God’s hand, to be honest with him about how I feel, and then to release the grip I have on that backpack. Only then can I get up and keep moving forward in my life.
Keep a close eye on your life and watch for the backpacks you take back upon yourself. Remember that God can carry them for you.
It is okay to feel lost
Even though I have learned how to trust God with my anxiety, I still often feel lost in the dark caves of mental health, even though I know that there is a light in the tunnel, and that light is God. It is okay to admit that you feel lost in the dark caves of mental health and it is okay to have hard days. You are not alone in this struggle! But take faith in the truth that one day, we will enter into his everlasting Kingdom where there is no darkness and we will never feel lost again.
Until that day, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)
Take a deep breath. Hold on to God’s hand, talk to him as you walk, and allow him to carry your burdens. Your journey will be different than everyone else’s, but take heart that the God of the universe is the light in your tunnel.