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A panic attack (also known as an anxiety attack) is a relatively brief episode of intense fear that comes on suddenly, where the person is both terrified of the physical symptoms that are afflicting them as well as by the associated fears that either triggered or accompanied the attack.

A panic attack typically lasts for at least ten minutes but can stretch on for much longer, even hours or days if cyclic in nature. Cyclic panic attacks are where a person is subject to a continuous cycle of attack after attack, with a new attack triggering even as the previous one is fading away.

The fears associated with a panic attack are strongest when the attack begins. These fears demand our attention, yet the more attention we give them – the more we fear them – the greater they become. Fighting, arguing with, fearing or trying to flee the panic attack and its disturbing symptoms causes negative adrenalin to flood our being. This in turn causes even greater anxiety and even more disturbing sensations to afflict us during the attack

In my case, a typical panic attack included an increased heart rate, flushed face, increased temperature, shortness of breath, chest feeling constricted, a complete lack of peace, and an intense churning/discomfort in the stomach. These physical symptoms were accompanied by a terrifying fear that was so vivid and threatening that I would often ‘scream’ in my mind. Many sufferers wail or scream quite loudly during an attack.

What triggers panic attacks?

A panic attack can be triggered by an extremely stressful or fearful situation, or even by an exceptionally terrifying fearful thought. Subsequent exposure to the same situation or fearful thought may trigger further attacks. Being afraid that another attack may come increases the likelihood of them striking again.

The stress of trying to making an important life decision can also trigger a panic attack. (See below for how this can affect Christians in particular.)

A mind prone to anxiety is the perfect seedbed in which a panic attack can take root and flourish. Some people by nature have a sensitive nervous system, which can be due to past or recent traumas or even due to genetic inheritance. However, those suffering from depression are especially susceptible to panic attacks as their minds are locked in a state of constant anxiety.

Dealing with Panic Attacks

In late July, 1990, I read ‘Self Help for Your Nerves,’ by Dr Claire Weekes, which taught me all about the ‘fear-adrenalin-fear cycle,’ (1) and how the more we fear, flee or fight panic attacks, the worse we become as the additional adrenalin produced prolongs symptoms and produces more disturbing physical, mental, emotional and spiritual sensations. It is a very vicious cycle.

To recover from panic attacks we need to break this cycle.The AWARE Technique is one effective method used by many to break the cycle:

Breaking the Panic Attack Cycle using the AWARE Technique

A- Accept the panic attack. Do not fear it or fight it. Fearing or fighting it just makes it worse. Just let it be there for now, like background music. Do not be afraid that you may have more panic attacks in the future. Let them come.

W- Watch the panic attack, by rating it right now on a scale of 1 to 100, 100 being the worse it has ever been in the past, and 1 meaning it has gone. Remember all anxiety attacks follow a pattern in that they increase to a peak and then decrease and stop. So do not be alarmed at its intensity during its worse phase. It will pass.

A- Act normal Carry on as normal. If you are currently engaged in an activity, concentrate on that activity. Otherwise, find something constructive to do, such as going for a walk, weeding the garden, washing the car. If you stop being active and focus on the panic attack and the fearful topic associated with it, it will suck you in and it will get temporarily worse. However, if you carry on as normal, choosing to focus on something else, the panic attack will start to fade.

R- Repeat Let time pass and keeping repeating the above three steps until the panic attack has faded away.

E- Expect Expect the best and remember that this panic attack will end soon just like all the previous ones did. Furthermore, expect each future attack to reduce in severity and duration, the more times you react to them with the AWARE technique. Eventually, you will no longer fear them and will be able to nip them in the bud before they start.

Panic Attacks and Christians

Unfortunately, for some Christians, a panic attack caused by the fear of making the wrong life choice has another insidious dimension to it. Since they cannot control it or make it stop, and because it is accompanied by a distinct lack of peace, they erroneously misinterpret the panic attack as God guiding them. A common expression not found in the Bible is, “Let the peace of God guide you.” It embarrasses me to admit that for many years I thought panic attacks were God guiding me.

Mistaking panic attacks as being God’s guidance actually makes the panic attacks worse, as such Christians in their eagerness to obey God are (unnecessarily) terrified of disobeying Him. A verse which used to torment me when I resisted and fought against a panic attack was 1 Samuel 15:22 “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD. To obey is better than sacrifice.” As I drew closer to depression as 1989 wore on, I had an attack and lost my peace every time I was faced with a major decision. Every time I tried to take a step forward, an attack (which I misinterpreted as God’s guidance) would send me reeling two steps backwards. In the end, I was too scared to make decisions any more. 18/2/1990 – I’m scared to commit to anything, such as joining a new church, getting a girlfriend, buying a computer, etc, in case He says no. It’s got to the point that I won’t do anything in case God says ‘no.

Before I became depressed, one thing that reinforced my belief that losing my peace due to a panic attack was God’s voice, was that every time I gave into the panic attack fear, the attack ended and my peace returned immediately. For example, once I was about to leave my job, enter part time ministry and look for a part time job. The massive panic attack which followed ceased as soon as I decided to turn down the offer for part time ministry and remain at my job.

Finally in April 1990 I saw a Christian counsellor. She told me that I was suffering from depression, and assured me that the panic attacks and lack of peace were NOT God attempting to guide me. She said that I had been placing my trust in following a lack of peace as guidance – “It’s always worked before” – instead of in Him. Through her counselling, prayer and Bible study, the Lord taught me the following truths, which set me free from the erroneous belief that panic attacks were God guiding me.

A small footnote here. Our heart can of course be troubled without suffering a panic attack – our heart can be troubled by a great number of things. For example we may have agreed to take on one too many jobs, causing such stress that we cannot relax or sleep properly. To reduce our workload here would be the wise choice. This is a case of noting the warning signs of our mind and body and taking appropriate action.