A panic attack is my definition of personal hell. It’s intense fear, experienced in the body and mind. You feel alone, stuck, off balance. You begin fearing fear. —Lucy Ann Moll
“Drive into the ditch. Drive into the ditch.” My mind repeated these words over and over and over as my foot pressed the brake, slowing my blue hatchback on the highway ramp’s curve. I felt like I had no control over my thoughts. They jumped like jungle monkeys on a death mission but I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to get home, curl up, and cry. I hated my crazy fears.
I feared I might actually drive into the ditch.
I feared my racing heart might explode.
I feared I wouldn’t stop shaking.
I feared I might pee in my pants.
I feared passing out.
I feared dying.
I feared fear.
Not My First Panic Attack
This full-blown panic attack on the Eisenhower expressway, connecting Chicago to the western suburbs, was my second one. The first one happened during my freshman year at university. Wanting freedom to go out with other guys, I dumped my high-school sweetheart within days of getting on campus.
He cannoned back with awful names I cannot repeat here. I tried to forget what he said about me, but his disapproving words wormed their way into my memory.
A few weeks later, while walking from class to my dorm on a cool autumn afternoon, out of no where my heart beat so wild it jitter-bugged. My legs felt wobbly, my knees like Jell-O. Sweat messed up my makeup. My mind spaced. Lightheaded and scared, I managed to make it to my room.
The next day I phoned my mom. She had had panic attacks throughout her life. Like mother, like daughter? I hope not! She made an appointment for me with her psychiatrist.
I didn’t want to go. Only crazy people went to psychiatrists and I wasn’t crazy.
Yes, my fear experience topped the weird charts, and I never ever wanted that to happen ever again. Ever. Rationally I knew I had no reason to fear. How could an ex-boyfriend’s hate speech trip a panic attack? Just words, right? These words became thoughts, faithless thoughts, that reminded me of my greatest fear: people’s disapproval.
I wanted people to like me. I wanted them not to not like me. Did I care what God thought of me? He wasn’t on my radar.
The psychiatrist said I was fine. Little did he know.
Not My Last Panic Attack
The night of the Eisenhower panic attack, I determined I would face my fear although I still felt shaky. I took the car to work. The drive in? Fine. Inside I “Happy” danced.
The drive home? How I wish I could say it went well. At the exact same spot, just before Mannheim, fear enveloped me. I gripped the steering wheel and felt wobbly and lightheaded, and as I slowed on the highway ramp, I heard, “Drive into the ditch. Drive into the ditch.”
I swore. Not again. God help me.
Afraid and angry and fearing fear, this described my heart—my inner self that includes my emotions, thoughts, beliefs, desires, and motivations. Back then, I hadn’t heard of biblical counseling. I didn’t know I had an idol and that my idol was people-pleasing. I identified it two decades later after poring over books written by biblical counselors, especially Elyse Fitzpatrick, author of Overcoming Fear, Worry, and Anxiety.
How did I handle my panic attacks when they began?
I learned to compensate by avoiding highway driving. Soon even the thought of highway driving brought on panicky feelings—from fast breathing to sweating to the sensations of chest tightness and having “a lump” in my throat. My fear had become a specific phobia. This type of phobia involves a ginormous fear and avoidance of one particular type of object or situation.
I’ve wondered if I had had that horrible highway panic attack in an elevator, would I have feared elevators? Probably. My mind made this iron-clad connection between the two: panic and highways. And I lived short of the abundant life Jesus desired for me.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I (Jesus) came that they may have life and have it abundantly. John 10:10, ESV
Reassuring Truth About a Panic Attack
I detailed how I overcame my phobia in another post. I hope it helps you get relief if you too have had a panic attack or other types of anxiety, including general anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Let me leave you with two hopeful thoughts:
1. God understands. He’s with you now. Yes, some Christians have panic attacks. This doesn’t make them—or you—bad Christians. Jesus himself was deeply troubled in the hours before his imprisonment.
And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’ Matthew 26:39, ESV
2. Most people don’t understand panic attacks; they are ignorant. They rarely know how to stop them, and sometimes they say stupid things. If you’ve suffered a panic attack, you know what I mean.
You see, overcoming panic attacks involves identifying your heart idols —those things you love more than God—and learning the truth about God and yourself as well as renewing your mind in line with Romans 12:2, Philippians 4:4–7, 2 Timothy 1:7, and other Scripture.
To overcome panic attacks, knowing what God says about fear is a step in the right direction but I had to take another step, a scary step: to act on what I believed.
And so I did. By God’s grace alone.
Two summers ago, I buckled my seat belt, turned up the praise music, waved good-bye to my family, and drove my Honda west, flying down highways, singing and smiling. Six hours later, I arrived at my destination.
Jesus took the wheel.
Jesus take the wheel
Take it from my hands
Cause I can’t do this on my own
I’m letting go
So give me one more chance
Save me from this road I’m on
Oh, Jesus take the wheel
~ Carrie Underwood ~