I have been going to church for most of my life and have not heard a lot of teachings on mental illness. This article will focus on my own personal story of anxiety, panic attacks, and substance abuse. First I am a Christian who has a mental illness. Know it is not demon possession or oppression. I am not lacking in faith, and I have a good prayer life. The point is that just as people suffer from other disorders that attack other parts of the body those of us with mental illness suffer in the mind. I remember when I was a teenager I would witness my grandmother suffer from terrible depression and anxiety. I would ignorantly think that it must all be in her mind. Well I was partially right it is in the mind, yet I did not know or understand the suffering in which she endured. That is till I started suffering from anxiety and panic disorder at the age of 25. For those of you out there readings this and also suffer in some form or another with a mental illness, and are also a professing Christian realize that you are not alone.
I also mentioned that I suffer from substance abuse as well, I currently have my substance abuse in remission, yet for many years I would use alcohol to self-medicate my symptoms. I do not want to focus so much on my substance abuse in this article I am not ashamed of it, I just want to take one thing at a time. This way I may be able to give some sort of spiritual insight in order to help my readers.
So what are panic attacks?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) gives guidelines to mental health care professionals to better diagnose their patients. I Know the V has come out but many of us are more familiar with the IV-TR so I will use its definition. If a person has four or more of the following
- palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- trembling or shaking
- sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- feeling of choking
- chest pain or discomfort
- nausea or abdominal distress
- feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
- fear of losing control or going crazy
- fear of dying
- numbness or tingling sensations
- chills or hot flushes
You may have experienced a panic attack. Yes these are very scary symptoms that is why many of us get to know the emergency room doctor very well.
Panic disorder is basically reoccurring panic attacks. Remember that in the United States only a professional can diagnose and treat panic disorder. I am not a professional I am a sufferer writing an opinion. If you have these symptoms there is help. Seek out a local psychiatrist and or a therapist who is professionally licensed to treat mental health disorders.
Being a Christian with a disorder such as panic can be a troublesome. These attacks lead many people including myself to an overconsumption of alcohol in order to self-medicate the disease. In the Christian world that can leave another stain on our Christian walk to outsiders. Sure we shouldn’t worry about what others think of us, but we are human and we do. So we may prefer not to talk about it with our brothers and sisters in Christ, for fear of criticism. It is difficult when one can bring up verses in scripture such as
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? (Matthew 6:25-27, NIV)
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, NIV)
Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken. (Psalms 55:22, NIV)
There are many more great verses that talk about anxiety and I truly appreciate them, I also absolutely believe in them. Yet when your frontal lobe shuts down and common sense goes out the window many times the first response is to run to the medicine cabinet for your prescribed benzodiazepine. After the drugs have kicked in, you can read the soothing verses and find peace. Obviously this is not how I want it. I want to be able to truly trust and believe in the scriptures and allow the Spirit of God to bring peace to my heart that will calm me down and take away all of the irrational fears that I am facing. It just never seems to happen that way. I have been a Christian along time, I have come to realize that I have a disorder and I am learning to accept it and not fight it. In my opinion when we fight a disorder like panic we may be creating more friction and cause the panic to enhance.
I personally would like more teachings about mental illness to take place within the church. I don’t want to hear “just pray” “have faith” or “Christians don’t suffer from these things.” I know one thing if those that believe you can just pray or have faith started suffering from panic attacks they would be changing their tune. This is why knowledge of mental illness needs to be taught from the pulpit. Believers need insight in order to understand and help their brothers and sisters. If the church elder, priest or pastor doesn’t have training in the area of mental illness have a person speak once in a while who does. Have a sufferer give their testimony. In this article I am talking about my own panic disorder but there are numerous others disorders that Christians suffer from and may feel like they cannot turn to those who share their same faith.
Is there any advantage to having panic disorder? Well as a sufferer for 10 years I think the answer can be yes. I will explain.
I believe that many of us who suffer from panic disorder have a great possibility to be empaths. An empath is a naturally giving, spiritually attuned, good listener. Empaths can feel where you are coming from, and have the uncanny ability to relate to another person and understand their heart. A verse that reminds me of what an empath does is Romans 12:15-16 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (NIV)
We are sensitive people and while that can trigger emotional instability if we learn how to transmute this quality we can use it for amazing good.
Second, if we take action to treat our condition we can understand and learn humility and surrender of self. Our ego and selfish nature will tell us to hold on to our life. Our ego says we are dying and have not accomplished such and such, or we are scared of the future so our unconscious self sends us into a panic. Our amygdala goes out of order and the flight or fight feelings take over. These issues can be worked through with a professional who possess many techniques to help us. After we have been given some insight into our panic we can understand that life is short, it is just a brief moment of time, and then we are on to the next life. God has given us this short life, we must learn to surrender this life to God and to our fellows. I am still working on this but it is where I am currently at in my Christian walk. The scriptures say to take up our cross, die to ourselves daily, it is not me who lives but Christ who lives in me. After going through hundreds of attacks and feeling like I have been near death many times, in a strange way it becomes easier to allow God to take control because nothing else seems to work. We become dependent on God almost in a manner that I cannot describe. You almost have to go through this disorder or something similar to understand.
Also we with panic disorders can become great inner workers. In other words we gravitate to prayer, meditation, exercise, and seek out inner peace. We read and gain knowledge in the arts and sciences. We do these things in order to help our condition, this brings about great knowledge and ultimately can lead us to a great and profound level of life. Our disorder creates a need to seek out holistic tools that many people wish they had the motivation to practice, while we are forced to master. We then can use these mastered abilities to help others and change the world.
Most importantly as a Christian with panic disorder we are forced to rely on Christ. Jesus the great teacher starts to become a part of our lives more and more through our sufferings. Paul was forced to have a thorn in his side. God would not remove this thorn but assured him that his grace was sufficient. Our panic disorder is truly a thorn in the side yet as above mentioned it can bring about a good life if treated properly. Our panic disorder can bring about an awakening in our lives that can open up a new world in every way imaginable. I am still seeking these outcomes, but I believe it to be true. The verses mentioned above are true, Christ does not want us to worry or fear but to totally trust him.
Now I understand that is all well and good till your next panic attack. Believe me I know. Run for the medicine cabinet! Yet I do believe in what I am saying, and I am progressing toward the goal to not only live out a more productive life because of my panic disorder. I also want to use it to help others live out a better lives also.