I sat in the front seat, unmoving. Goosebumps covered my body, yet I was dripping with sweat. My heart was racing and my head spinning as if I had gotten up too fast. I willed my breathing to be slow and steady. In through the nose, 2, 3, out through the mouth, 2, 3. Despite my best efforts the breaths were shaky and thin. I knew what was happening. I also knew it just had to run it's course. I was having a panic attack.
We were in the middle of an unexpected two-week semi-vacation in Yellowstone National Park, and the things we had seen and done had been breathtaking - and this day promised to be no different.
The sun sat high in the sky, there was a slight chill to the air that made riding in the car while singing along to the radio and sipping coffee and cocoa altogether pleasant. Suddenly, we happened upon a massive herd of buffalo roaming across Fountain Flats.
We pulled over because, in case you didn't know, bison have the right of way - whether you give it to them or not.
The cameras clicked as we all oohed and ahed from the safe confines of our vehicle, and the conversation pace quickened in excited whispers.
I can't believe we get to experience this! What an incredible opportunity! Thank you, God, for this gift!
Then it happened.
A large male bison stopped directly in front of our car. I grabbed the video camera and started rolling, while my husband snapped photos and the kids giggled with awe in the back seat. Then suddenly and without warning, panic set in.
And I've never felt so stupid in my entire life.
You see, this was only the second time this had happened, but I knew anxiety had been trying to get it's tar-like foot in the door for awhile.
I had struggled with feeling guilty for my battle with anxiety the past two years. No, not guilty. Less than.
Less than Christian enough.
Less than faithful.
Do you know how many verses are in the Bible that deal with fear, anxiety and the like?
Me neither. Well, not the exact number but I know there are a lot.
I've felt that if I just believed more strongly, or were more full of the Holy Spirit, this wouldn't be a problem for me.
Friend, I am here to tell you that is a lie straight from the pit of hell.
Did you know there's a part of your brain called the amygdala? Do you know what it does?
It is responsible for our Freeze-Fight-or-Flight response. It's a handy little doodad, to be sure! We need that bad boy for when there's a true emergency. That little guy is the one responsible for triggering all the things that have to happen in order for a terrified mama to lift a car off her pinned-down child, or allows you to run unnaturally fast to escape certain harm.
However, that little finger shaped guy chilling in the back of our brains sometimes gets a little over stressed. Over worked. He's put in a little too much overtime and gets a little trigger happy. He starts to think things are life-threatening when they really aren't. He starts to make that crowded movie theater look more like an inescapable cave. Or he convinces you the subway you're on is going to crash so you need to decide who in your car can play what role when the inevitable disaster strikes.
I have come to realize, through prayer, study of God's word, and conversation with people much smarter than I, that there is a difference between this kind of anxiety - the kind our little friend Amygdala is responsible for - and the kind of anxiety we conjure willfully.
You see, when the Bible tells us, "do not be anxious", it is not saying it is a sin to engage the flight-or-flight response. No. I believe it is addressing our innate ability to believe we can control a situation by mulling over every single outcome or possibility in our minds over and over and over. Better yet if we can lose a little sleep over it. To refuse to hand over worrisome situations or unknowns to the Father for Him to handle - and to ask for the strength to endure it well in the process - is the sin.
The fight-or-flight response is no more sinful than an allergy attack or a stroke. Good ole amygdala kicking in when there's no real emergency is a physiological response to stressful experiences. What we do when that happens is what we need to concern ourselves with.
So, what can we do when our stress responders are working overtime? Here are some things that have helped me - both in the moment of panic, and in-between said moments.
In the moment panic sets in:
1. Focus on the truth. Force yourself to look at the situation and find the things that are absolutely true. Yes, the buffalo may decide your car looks like a mighty-fine lady friend and decide to charge. But, in this moment right now, that is not the truth. Find things like this, these nuggets of truth, and remind yourself of them again and again. Whether it's reminding yourself what turbulence actually is, or realizing there actually is a way out of that shopping mall and you can be out of there in 30 seconds, keep an inner dialogue that's chalk full of truth, light and grace.
2. Breathe. When Mr. Amygdala is armageddon mode he really doesn't need to be, we've got to try and slow the process down. Searching for the truth of the moment will help. So will taking nice, deep, slow breaths. Chances are you're either breathing fast and shallow, or holding your breath. Focus on breathing slowly in through the nose, and out through the mouth.
3. Talk it out. If you're in a place where it's possible, tell the person you're with, "You know, I'm feeling a bit worried about this. Am I reading this situation wrong?" Tell your husband, friend or pastor what you are struggling with. For me, trying to hide the panic only fed it more power. And that power grew exponentially. Simply sharing it with my husband weakened it substantially. The enemy wants us to feel ashamed and defeated. He knows getting one or two others to help shoulder the burden will keep us on the path to victory. So he whispers lies that convince us we are all better off if we just keep it to ourselves.
In the in-between times:
1. Spend time with God as if your life depended on it. As I've been in the thick of it, my brain has been so foggy it's been difficult for me to form even the simplest sentence prayer. Thankfully, however, my relationship with God is not dependent on me filling every silence with words. I simply come, tell my Daddy how tired I am, and let Him sing over me. I keep images on my phone full of life-giving verses. I read Scripture before I even get out of bed. Keeping as near to my Father as possible has helped me when the anxiety comes on strong. It doesn't stop it, but it gives me strength just reminding myself daily - hourly - that I'm held firmly in His hand.
2. Don't be afraid to seek professional help. Sometimes, even with time with the Lord and the help of our spouse or friends, we need someone who can give us some practical tips to keep our heads above water - and eventually help get us out of the pool altogether. I know for me, having a professional listen to my experiences and tell me, "You're not crazy. It's not all in your head. There is a physical, chemical reaction happening in your body," did wonders. It gave me hope. Sometimes our bodies need medical help - be it an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication for a period of time, or something as simple as a high-dose vitamin to correct a deficiency. It likely won't be forever, only for a season. Don't be afraid to take whatever steps needed to get you back onto level ground.
Finally, friends, I want to leave you with a song that has been such a lifeline for me on the nights when my brain won't quit. It's full of truth, hope and a mesmerizing soulful voice that helps still my soul. I put my headphones on and play it on repeat as I lay in bed on those nights when I really need help seeing the truth of my moment. I pray it lifts your heart as it does mine.