[Editor’s Note: Everyone has mental health experiences on the spectrum between thriving and struggling. Perhaps you (or a friend) are in a season where you need extra mental, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical support. In this #mentalhealth series, we want to balance personal experience/story with input from mental health and medical professionals. We want to also explore, “How does our faith in Jesus relate to our mental health?” Our desire is to support you as you work towards mental well-being.
If you are considering hurting yourself or someone else, or you know someone who is, please contact a mental health emergency hotline. If you need urgent counselling support, Kids Help Phone is also available for young adults up to age 29 for phone calls, Facebook Messenger, or texting conversations.]
My anxiety was intensifying
Recently, I found myself a bystander in a conflict between groups of close friends. Given my fragile mental health, I was hesitant to delve into the matter. But it was painful to see stable relationships falling apart without knowing why.
I started meeting with both sides, trying to get my head around the nature of the layered conflict. After weeks of listening to opposing narratives, I was at my wit’s end. I didn’t know what to do or who to turn to.
I was standing at the top of my stairway, about to go down and make a call to a denominational leader, when I started experiencing something I had never felt before.
A plethora of symptoms came over me, fast. First, I noticed that my head felt dizzy. I was suddenly disoriented. Concerned I might pass out and fall, I made my way to the living room, where I laid down on the couch. I asked my 12-year-old daughter and my 14-year-old son to be present and observe me if I needed help.
I started to feel faint and nauseous. My hands were cold but sweaty. My breathing became more shallow, and I began to hyperventilate. My heart rate was increasing rapidly. I started to shake uncontrollably.
My brain was trying to make sense of what was happening. Worst-case scenarios were racing through my mind. Is this a heart attack? Will this cause permanent damage to my body? Will it ever stop?
Amid my increasing confusion, I called 911. I was irritated that the dispatcher was asking me so many questions. I was trying to focus all my energy on containing the energy pulsing through my body. When I could not speak out the last four digits of my phone number, I had to pass the phone to my kids.
Am I going insane?
At that point, my autonomic nervous system shot me into a stratosphere of chemical chaos. Every part of my body was pulsing with electricity. That’s when I started kicking and punching the couch.
I couldn’t contain all the emotions built up within me. I found myself shouting out, crying out, moaning, and sobbing uncontrollably. I was so loud that my kids needed to go to another room to communicate with the 911 dispatcher. The darkness at that moment felt like I was fighting the devil himself. Out of the dispatcher’s concern for the sounds of agony he heard, he said he was sending fire, ambulance, and police.
Those sirens are coming for me
Hearing the sirens of those first-response vehicles was both a comfort and a terror. At first, they gave me the hope to hold on. I wasn’t going to be without medical oversight and help much longer. I had confidence they would know what to do. I certainly didn’t know what was wrong. I was panicked about being panicked.
But then some thoughts flashed through my mind. “How can this be happening to me? Look at the state I am in. By calling 911, this is no longer private. First-responders are going to see me like this. Neighbours are going to be asking questions.”
I knew I was a mess physically. My eyes were red, teary, and puffy. My face looked swollen, tripped out, and pale as if I was drugged. For the sake of documentation, I took a video of myself as evidence of my state. I haven’t brought myself to watch it yet. I probably never will. My hair was messy from running my hands through it. My brain was struggling to keep in touch with reality. I was paranoid that someone would find out about my quest to get to the bottom of the truth and violently assault me.
The presence of help assures
I was semi-conscious when the firefighters came through the front door. I told them I was relieved they came. But all they could do was to assure me the paramedics were on the way.
During my time on the couch, my left arm was in an awkward triangle position with my left hand propping up my head. When the paramedic asked me to sit up, I moved my arm. A powerful surge of electricity ran through my arm, and it became a shaft of electricity.
When I shifted my position again, energy pulsated from my heart through my neck into my head. I felt as if the energy pulsing in my head would make my brain explode. My peripheral vision darkened. I let the paramedics know I was afraid I’d pass out. The firemen were on standby in case the paramedics needed help lifting me onto the ambulance stretcher. Thankfully, despite my fears, I never passed out.
Eventually, the paramedics arrived, and one of them, experienced in dealing with panic, took total charge. She assured me that I was going to be ok. She asked for my attention. She asked me what happy place I could envision in my mind. I said, “God’s throne room.” She coached me out of my frenzied state by breathing deeply from my stomach and thinking of God’s throne room.
Over the next hour, the paramedic patiently talked me through my gradual descent from my heightened panicked state. We made our way to the hospital in the ambulance. At first, I tried to message coworkers and friends to let them know what was going on with me, but each message only triggered more panic. I had to ask the paramedic to keep my phone away from me.
I am grateful to have had that particular paramedic coach me. In the ambulance, she confided that she was a believer. She told me how my traumatic emotional reaction was one of the strongest she had seen. She shared with me that she was in an accident only a year prior, leaving her with a broken body and a husband who left her.
When we arrived at the Emergency ward, both EMTs were there to talk me through my anxieties. One offered me some gum to wet my dry mouth. I didn’t realize how much I needed their assurance until I was left alone with my panic. I felt the haunting emotions rising as if I would relapse right there and then. I didn’t want to go through that again.
I was consumed with the paranoid thoughts that gave rise to continued panic––that friends I once trusted might think I was betraying them and would come and harm me.
Living with my panic
The social worker at the hospital ER compared my initial panic to an earthquake and gave me a heads up that there would be subsequent aftershocks and tremors. Since that initial episode, I find in my mind and body a propensity to function in a constant state of panic. I am always mindful of my desperate need to calm myself––mostly in the middle of the night when I spontaneously start to rehearse all the conflict.
I have been learning what it means to identify, accept, live with, and manage my panic. I never knew it was possible for me to feel so emotionally sensitive and raw. I was terrified of feeling so fragile. I was afraid I would be in this state permanently.
For weeks I didn’t want to be left alone, in case I would have another panic attack. I didn’t want to go out in public, in case I embarrassed myself. What if I had another episode in public? That was the most embarrassing thing I could imagine.
But how can I be calm?
In my heightened state of panic, I struggled to find calm for weeks. Doctors and friends had plenty of suggestions. “Do you have a good support network of friends? Are you in therapy? Do you want medication? Have you tried medical marijuana? Are you getting out in nature?”
At first, when my panic attacks were intense and I didn’t feel safe going out, I did the only thing I knew how to do—I kept calling out to God. I pored over the book of Hebrews and Psalms. I was continually listening to God’s Word on my Bible app, talking, and praying with my wife. In one relapse moment, I felt panic coming on strong, so much that I started to shake and convulse. I put on my headphones and continued listening to the calming and wise voice of Tim Keller, a pastor in New York. I found my panic subsiding.
For weeks, I struggled to find any psychologists that were available to take my case on. I was naive and clueless about how to respond to this new, extreme, and life-altering form of anxiety.
I invested a lot of time meditating on Psalm 23, as it has been a comfort to my anxious soul over the years. I found its message helped ground and calm me. While reflecting and writing, I recalled a book I had read way back: A Shepherd’s Look at Psalm 23, by Philip Keller.
The book got me thinking: how can Jesus, my shepherd, comfort me in my panic? How can I experience the soul restoration of green pastures and quiet waters? How can I boast that Jesus is my shepherd and that I require nothing, no matter my circumstance?
Conditions needed for calm
As I read Philip Keller’s thoughts, I was astonished by how much I can identify with sheep. Like sheep, I need rest. Like sheep, I cannot rest unless specific requirements are met.
- Due to their timid nature, sheep refuse to lie down if they sense any danger. I can relate. I struggle to be at rest and content when I am fearful. I am not very good at comforting and calming myself. I need Jesus to calm me.
- Given their social nature, sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. When I find myself in the middle of relational conflict, I find it very hard to rest. I need to stay close to Jesus, my good shepherd, to help me keep calm during relational conflict.
- If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep refuse to lie down. Only when free of these pests can they lie down. My negative thoughts alone can endlessly torment me. I need Jesus to transform my mind.
- If sheep are worried about any lack of food and are hungry, they won’t lie down. They must be free from hunger. I need to feed my soul on Jesus, the bread of life, to be well-fed, fulfilled, and satisfied.
I can identify with being a sheep. If I am restless, discontented, agitated, and disturbed, I will probably not rest well. I toss and turn in my bed. I function in anxiety. Always on edge, never being able to rest.
Through meditating on this shepherd/sheep analogy, I have come to realize that Jesus is the good shepherd of my soul, and going to him calms my fears, anxieties, and panic. His shepherding work helps me, his sheep, to lie down and rest.
Jesus, my shepherd through panic
In addition to my walk with Jesus, I knew I needed to get some practical therapy. God providentially surfaced a psychologist who specializes in helping patients who experience panic. She helped me understand that panic isn’t something to be feared.
I am learning that I can live with the unpleasant feelings of panic and be confident they are not dangerous. I’ve learned that my panic attack was my body’s alarm system going off, without me being in any real danger.
Through it all, I can see Jesus. Jesus in my kids, helping me call 911. Jesus in the paramedic, who helped me during my panic attack. Jesus through Tim Keller, preventing escalating emotions. Jesus in the Bible, revealing truth to me. Jesus is my psychologist, helping me understand what I’m experiencing. In my panic, Jesus was my shepherd.
Did you enjoy this article? We encourage you to check out more articles in our #mentalhealth series.
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