by Russell Pond
It was early Saturday morning, and I had a job to finish for my company. San Antonio was only an hour's drive from home. I had driven there many times before, but this morning was quite different. What happened that day only lasted a few minutes, but the memory of it would control my life for the next ten years.
As I entered the city, I noticed that my heart was beating quite fast, and I had difficulty breathing. What's happening to me? My hands and legs started to go numb. This is a heart attack! I'm having a heart attack! My mind began to race. I'm going crazy. I just know I am. At that point, I just knew that I was going to die. Oh Lord, please don't let me die!
As it turned out, I didn't have a heart attack. I didn't go crazy, and I'm still alive to tell you about what I went through. I was having what doctors call a panic attack.
Thoughts of dying or going crazy are common among people having a panic attack. One study shows that a third of the people who go to an emergency room for "heart problems" are there as a result of a panic attack.
Panic disorder is different from a panic attack. An attack--although it is very terrifying--only lasts a few minutes. Panic disorder results from the long term effects of the attack itself. Complications of this disorder include the fear of having another attack, agoraphobia, and drug or alcohol abuse. According to the National Mental Health Institute, between 20 and 30 million Americans suffer panic disorder.
Although panic attacks have been around for centuries, doctors are now beginning to understand what causes these terrifying experiences. The human body has a natural, biochemical reaction to fear known as the "fight or flight" system. In this system, the body prepares either to run from danger or stand up and fight.
To illustrate this, imagine walking through a thick wilderness. As you approach a small river, you notice a large black bear feeding. At this point the bear hasn't noticed you, but your body begins to react. Your heart starts beating faster, and your blood pressure elevates. Your hands and legs begin to go numb, because your blood is being pumped to your legs for running and to your arms for fighting. Adrenaline is being released into your body. During all this, your mind is focused on that bear, and not on your body. If the bear sees you, then your body is ready to react.
Someone having a panic attack will experience the same symptoms: rapid heartbeat, numbing sensation in the hands and legs, and elevated blood pressure. Irrational fears arise because the person having the attack is "looking for the bear." Since no external danger can be found, the panic sufferer begins to listen to what their body is telling them. My heart is racing. Maybe it's a heart attack. My body is going numb. I must be dying. Thoughts race through the mind as the sufferer tries to "find the bear."
Panic disorder is more common among women than men. For every eight women diagnosed with this disorder, only one man will have it. According to the NMHI, panic and anxiety disorders are the leading mental health problem in women. For men, it is second only to drug and alcohol abuse.
For years, I visited doctors in hopes of finding out what my problem was. Each doctor I saw could find nothing wrong with me. They dismissed it as either stress or "nerves".
During my senior year at college, the panic attacks increased. I went to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with Chronic Panic Anxiety Disorder. It was actually a relief to know that I was not alone--that others were having the same problem I had. He treated me for about three months with an anti-anxiety drug and behavior therapy. The treatment, however, was not completely successful. A few years later, the fear returned.
In college, I discovered a temporary form of self medication known as "alcohol." Twenty percent of those who suffer panic disorder will turn to alcohol or drugs for temporary relief. Almost every night, I would drink to avoid dealing with the fear.
Two years after graduation, the alcohol and fear continued. I felt that no one could help me. Depression eased its way into my life. Utterly hopeless, I prayed a simple prayer, "God, if You are real, then You can help me. You can take away this fear."
After visiting various churches, I found one that I really enjoyed. It was quite different than what I was used to. Worship was the focus of this non-denominational church. I knew that this was the place for me.
On my third visit, the pastor began speaking about this fear he had experienced. I've heard many people talk about fear, but this time it was different. I knew the kind of fear he was describing. Afterwards, he agreed to see me for counseling.
On our first meeting together, he asked me to explain what I was going through. As I stumbled for words, he stopped me and said, "Better yet. Let me explain it to you." As he began to describe the fear, I was shocked--someone could actually describe to me my fears.
The layers of hopelessness slowly began to peel away. Not only did I find someone who experienced what I had, but he was completely free from it. There was hope. For the first time in my life, I could see light at the end of the tunnel.
From that day on, I began a quest. I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could about panic attacks and panic disorder. I started collecting every article I could find on the subject. I searched the Bible for all references to fear. I read books by doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists who understand this anxiety disease.
In all of the researched information, I never found that overnight cure I so desperately sought. I was hoping for that "magic pill," but there was none. I soon learned that healing is a process.
After meeting with other panic sufferers, I learned that the healing process is related to the length of the disorder. For those who had been experiencing panic attacks for only a few years, healing often came in a few months. For others who had experienced this fear their entire life, as my pastor and I, healing was a longer process.
Overcoming panic disorder starts with knowledge of the disorder. Knowing how the body reacts during a "fight or flight" situation can help tremendously when the next panic attack strikes. When the mind begins to "search for the bear," the sufferer can now understand why these thoughts arise.
Doctors today have become quite knowledgeable about anxiety. Panic disorder is one of the most curable mental health problems in today's society. The sad news is that only one in four people seek treatment. Over ninety percent of those who do seek treatment can notice significant relief within a few weeks. If you feel you are victim of this fear, talk to your doctor. There is hope. Healing will come in its time.
For me, the Key to opening that door to healing was Jesus Christ. The Bible says that there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear, because fear involves torment (1 John 4:18, NKJV). That perfect love can come only through Jesus.
You may ask, "I suffer panic attacks and fear. Where do I begin?" You can start where I did--with prayer. Pray the simple prayer that I prayed when I was in that tunnel of darkness. Ask God to reveal Himself to you. Commit your life to Christ. Then, through Him, God will cast out that imperfect fear with His perfect Love. This is where healing begins.
Dear Heavenly Father, I come to You defeated by this fear. The Bible says that Your perfect Love casts out all fear, and I want to know Your Love. I know that I have not lived a perfect life before You, but there is One Who has, Jesus Christ. I commit my life to developing a love relationship with Him. I can now come to You through Your Son and receive the peace You have for me. I ask all of these things in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I hope this testimony has blessed you. If you would like to ask me some questions about panic attacks or if you want some prayer, then send me some email. I would love to hear from you. Blessings!
Russell ministers on the Internet to many people who have panic attacks through his web site, "Season of Peace".
You can write to Russell Pond at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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