The panic attacks began one sunny autumn Sunday morning shortly after I arrived at that church. Nothing unusual was happening – it was a Sunday like every other Sunday. It was during the final morning service when one moment I was reading the text, the next I felt my throat constricting and my breath slipping away. Heat rose into my chest and face and the words on the page began to swirl. I wondered if I would pass out, I could feel my heart rate accelerating, thumping in my chest. I stumbled over the words as I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs to speak them. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the Senior Pastor. Was he looking at me? Could he tell I was freaking out? Could the congregation see how red my face was? I felt confused, frightened, and extremely ashamed that I was out of breath and faltering over my words. When the readings were over, I went back to my seat with my head held low. What was wrong with me? I went home and cried to Chad in our kitchen as I told him about the terrifying experience. He listened and gave me a hug. I hoped to God that Sunday morning had been just a strange, isolated experience.
It was only the beginning, unfortunately. Panic and anxiety began to accompany me regularly each week to worship. I researched extensively on stage fright and panic attacks and as I did, I tried every tactic I could think of to get “over it.” I quit smoking – which I knew was a good idea no matter what. I began running five miles before church each week and eventually began marathon training. I prayed and prayed and prayed some more. I would write down distracting things on my church bulletin (like the punchline of a joke, or even initial in something dirty and scandalous Chad had said to make me laugh) in hopes that if my mind got distracted with other thoughts while I was reading, I wouldn’t think about the swirling, scary thoughts that made me descend into panic: everyone looking at me, everyone listening to me, screwing up, etc. I took a Benadryl before worship – thinking that maybe if I felt drowsy that would help my heart to not race so much. I did breathing exercises, meditation and visualizations. Everything helped and nothing helped. Sometimes I could go a Sunday or two without a full-blown panic attack, but the threat of them was always there. Nothing could make the threat of them disappear and the worry wore me down. I felt like I lived constantly under the heavy shadow of what my anxiety might do to me. I was not in control of it, I could only avoid it sometimes. Even if it left me at peace for a time, I knew it would be back. It lingered like a ghost in the corner of that big brick box sanctuary – I knew eventually it would always find me again.
Have you experienced panic attacks? If so, what tools have you found to deal with them?