Like me, do you battle anxiety? If so, here are four practical steps you can take when you feel panicked or overwhelmed.
I bet you didn’t know I’m afraid of the dark,” my daughter Savannah informed me, her manner so matter of fact.
I wanted to whisper back, “Me too,” but I stopped myself. This third-born daughter of mine was too young and too dependent on me to bear the burden of my solidarity.
What I left unspoken was that sometimes my dread of the dark was debilitating. There were times, too many to number, where the mere suggestion of venturing out after the sun set triggered a panic attack. I’d even spent a couple of years turning down girls’ night invitations if they required I be out after dusk.
For as long as I remember, I’ve struggled with fear at some level, but I haven’t always been severely afraid of the dark. It’s an apprehension that surfaced after the miscarriage as I suddenly found myself suffering postpartum, grief-triggered anxiety attacks and irrational fear.
When Loss Brings Anxiety
The attacks happened in situations where I felt a loss of control, places — such as the dark — where I couldn’t clearly assess my surroundings to determine whether I and those I loved were safe from harm.
The death of our preborn baby through miscarriage had acutely reminded me, more than any other loss I’d personally experienced, that control was not mine. Safety wasn’t guaranteed. And beyond that and even more terrifying to me, it highlighted in broad strokes of ugly neon yellow, that God — who was in control — had allowed one of my kids to die.
My first panic attack hit nineteen days after our obstetrician informed us there was no heartbeat. One minute, I was fine. The next, my heart began to race, my breath grew scarce, and I flashed back to the ultrasound room. It took at least ten minutes for my body to return to a semi-calm state.
The first attack led to a second, and a third. Before long, I experienced multiple attacks a day as my irrational fears increased. I was even unable to walk into a dark room in my own house without dread.
In a matter of weeks, I went from being a happily pregnant mom to someone who struggled to function physically, emotionally, and mentally. Not only had I been helpless to control whether my preborn baby lived or died, I now failed to govern how my body reacted to the grief.
4 Practical Steps for Battling Anxiety
As I’ve written on my panic attacks and shared one-on-one about them the last several years, more and more people have responded with, “Me too.” I’d never realized how many others grieved the loss of control that stems from anxiety. Maybe you’re one of them.
I’ve also talked to others who’ve told me they aren’t prone to panic attacks. They don’t experience them. Yet what they do feel is overwhelmed at times by all the expectations, both the positive and negative, placed on them. In those moments, they too struggle with a loss of control and the frustration it brings. They find themselves in a place where they need help navigating this loss well.
Whichever tribe you resonate with, there are practical actions you can take when you feel overwhelmed. Here are few things that have been beneficial to me.
1. Identify Triggers
I’ve learned to identify those situations, environments, and emotions most likely to “trigger” or serve as a stimulus for a panic attack or cause me to feel overwhelmed.
Dark, unlit spaces often leave me experiencing anxiety. Other triggers include large crowds in small spaces, situations where I feel overwhelmed by the number of expectations given me, and environments where it’s difficult to keep track of my children such as a busy museum, playground, or shopping center.
When we face anxiety, we can identify those situations, environments, and emotions most likely to “trigger” or serve as a stimulus for panic.
I do my best to avoid these triggers.
2. Talk to God
The night Savannah told me she was afraid of the dark, I reminded her that suspicious shadows and unexpected creaks weren’t the only thing residing in the darkness. Jesus was there too, and she could talk to Him any time.
The wisdom I offered Savannah is also mine for the taking.
When the panic invades or I feel overwhelmed, God is ready and willing to help me. I just need to call on Him. Most of the time, my cry is simple. A “help me” goes far. If there’s anything fear is afraid of, it’s Him.
3. Talk to Myself
Once I’ve talked to Him, I talk to myself. Not just any words, but words of truth.
I’ve found that memorizing Scripture passages such as Psalm 91 minister faith to me, which is the opposite of fear. In this passage, David reaffirms that God is His refuge and fortress in times of trouble. He speaks of God’s protection, deliverance, and help.
4. Talk to Others
When I’m hit with an attack or feel overwhelmed, I often call Ted or a close friend.
Just as I offered words of comfort to Savannah, they also speak similar words to me. They remind me I’m not alone. They help turn my attention to God, as they walk beside me and encourage me to rely on Him.
Faithful friends turn our attention to God, as they walk beside us and encourage us to rely on Him.
This was specifically true in the months that followed our miscarriage. Ted was laid off soon after and I hit perhaps the lowest point in my life as I entertained suicidal thoughts. I pondered what would happen if I took all of my antidepressants at once. Rather than keeping these thoughts to myself out of shame, though, a message at church challenged me to talk about them with Ted. I found freedom and accountability in doing so.
When God Meets Us Where We Are
Not long after our miscarriage, Savannah celebrated her second birthday. With this changing of age, came the dreaded season of pacifier weaning. She grieved hard the loss and fought fiercely for the control to keep it.
I understood. I knew how difficult it was to face an unexpected change that rendered me powerless. While saying goodbye to a pacifier wasn’t the same as the death of a child, I empathized with Savannah. I saw my pain in hers.
One day, as she sat on the couch screaming at me, I remained beside her. I offered comfort, but didn’t stop her pain by returning the pacifier. Instead, I allowed her to grieve the loss of the item and the loss of control, helping her process with my presence and my empathy.
And, because of the relationship we’ve built, she felt the freedom to run to my arms and cry and yell within my embrace.
In my own loss, God has done for me what I sought to do for Savannah. He hasn’t removed my sorrow. Most of the time, He doesn’t even return what I’ve lost. What He does do is remain beside me. He allows me to grieve, comforting me with His presence and His empathy.
And, because of the relationship we’ve built, I feel the freedom to run to His arms and cry and yell within His embrace.
This article is adapted from my new book, Braving Sorrow Together: The Transformative Power of Faith and Community When Life Is Hard from Moody Publishers, 2017. Used with permission.
About Braving Sorrow Together
How do you cope when life is hard? Is there a way to grieve so that seasons of loss become seasons of growth?
Braving Sorrow Together: The Transformative Power of Faith and Community When Life is Hard is about where to turn when life is hard. Ashleigh Slater weaves together Scripture, personal stories, and guest entries to comfort the suffering and encourage hopeful grieving.
Whether your trials concern health, employment, relationships, or even death, grief can turn into growth when we lean on Christ and others. Braving Sorrow Together provides solace for hard times and advice for getting through them with grit and grace.