Panic attacks and what I’m learning along the way

June 30, 2017

I was 25 years old when I scored my dream job—working as an editor on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. After growing up in California, I fell head-over-heels in love with the East Coast and decided to start putting down some roots. Until I landed in the ER at 3:00 a.m. one morning with what I thought was a heart attack.

I hadn’t slept in three days, and my heart was racing, burning, palpitating. Even when I lay motionless in bed, I felt like I was running a marathon. I gasped for breath. I was exhausted.

Docs ran multiple tests and X-rays, but in the absence of anything conclusive they sent me on my way: “This can happen to people with long-and-thin frames like yours.” I left the ER that day with no idea how to slow my body long enough to get a few hours of sleep. Soon I had to quit my job and fly home to California.

That was a dark season of my life, to be sure. And it was the beginning of a new reality for me. Eventually my “heart-attack–insomnia” bouts were diagnosed as panic attacks, and for the past 16 years they have dotted the landscape of my life.

Grief and grace

Panic attacks have been a source of both grief and grace. Grief, because they are terrifying, painful, disorienting and exhausting. Grace, because through them God has humbled my proud heart and taught me to trust in myself less and trust in him more. When Asaph said, “My flesh and my heart may fail me, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever,” I get it.

I’ve learned a lot along this broken way. I’ve been able to identify the biggest triggers for my panic attacks. I’ve come to understand the great need I have for healthy life habits. I’ve passionately pursued emotional and relational maturity in areas of my life where I’ve long been deficient. And I’ve learned that we are wholistic creatures—God made us both body and soul. Imagine sharing the gospel with a starving person without first meeting their physical needs. It would be unkind and ineffectual, to say the least. In a similar way, if you’re in the midst of panic and I tell you “Don’t be anxious for anything” before I address your physical symptoms, I ultimately fail to care for you. First let’s deal with the panic, then your heart will be calm enough to hear life-giving truth.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve learned is that in Christ, God is happy to be with me, even in the most terrifying moments of anxiety. He is here. He has everything I need for this.

Some helpful handles

God hasn’t given me a shortcut through panic. He cares more for my long-term growth than for quick-fixes that bring momentary relief but leave me unchanged. God is bringing much beauty out of my ashes, and if some of that beauty can spill over onto you, this 16-year journey would be well worth it. Along the way he has graciously equipped me with some very helpful handles that minimize the frequency and severity of my panic attacks. I want to share some of these with you. I’m not a doctor, so I’ll leave issues of medication, exercise and diet in the hands of the professionals. But these are simple means of turning to God (physically and emotionally) in order to not just survive anxiety, but to also know and love him better through it.

Life-giving friends: Typically when I’m in the throes of panic, there are layers of stressful people and circumstances in my life. Avoiding those circumstances and people may not be possible (nor even wise), but I can counterbalance them by spending extra time with joyful, life-giving friends. These are dear ones who are tender to my weaknesses and love me in all my mess. They lower their expectations. They light up when they see me. Time with them reminds me of who I am, who God is and that there’s life beyond this panic. I notice that my heart rate slows, my shoulders relax and my obsessive thoughts lose momentum. God has made us for joyful relationship, and the worst thing I can do when I’m navigating extreme anxiety is to isolate myself.
A thankful heart: One of the greatest helps in dealing with panic has been practicing appreciation in three specific ways. I borrowed these from two must-read books: Joy Starts Here by Jim Wilder and Transforming Fellowship by Chris Coursey.

Appreciation memories. When I’m riddled with anxiety, I recall two specific memories of when I experienced amazing peace and joy (I’ve named them “Panera Bread” and “D.C. Trip”), and I re-live them in as much detail as I can: where I was; what I smelled, heard, saw, tasted; who I was with, and so on. Doing this reminds me (1) what it feels like to be calm, (2) that God has been so good to me before, and (3) that this momentary panic is not the end of the story.

List of 10. I keep a list of 10 things I’m grateful for. It includes my morning cup of coffee, the beautiful view from my bedroom window, the daily routines I enjoy with my family and the grace I receive from my husband every day. I rehearse it when my thoughts feel panicky. The goal is to practice gratitude with such frequency (some suggest five minutes, three times a day) that my brain learns a new normal, and my body can begin to return to an appreciative and calm state more quickly over time, with practice.

3X3X3. When I’m ramped up and just can’t seem to slow down (and I’m dreading a sleepless, anxious night), I recall aloud, just before bed, three things I’m thankful for about that day, three things I’m thankful for about my husband, and three things I’m thankful for about God. This sounds ridiculously simple, but it has an immediate effect on me.

A relaxed body: Sometimes a full-body massage can work wonders in the midst of panic. A panic attack can create a corkscrew of physical tension, and a massage can immediately release some of that pressure. There are also fantastic “tapping” and pressure-point techniques that help calm my body. And sometimes I simply need a strong hug or a firm grip on my arm to slow my heart rate. Moderate exercise and sweating help me as well (even a 20-minute walk and a few lunges or light weights), but nothing sustained or intense—as that can put more burden on my already overtaxed body. I’ve also used a breathing app to help me steady and deepen my erratic and short breaths during an attack.

Time outdoors: I’ve found that spending time outdoors—soaking up the sun and enjoying nature in all its beauty—is highly effective (and free!) therapy for both body and soul. I’ve come to love hiking. I’ve become an avid bird-watcher (ahem, the very person I used to chuckle at), and I often linger while looking at a flower, a sunset, a tree. I take deep breaths as I study the intricacies of my Creator’s handiwork. If God cares this much for a flower of the field or a bird of the air, if there is such design and purpose in a tiny part of his creation—imagine how much more he cares for me, how much greater his purposes are for me.
Immanuel journaling: During periods of intense anxiety and panic, I have the tendency to read Scripture and pray with a fearful and distracted spirit. In order to move out of fearful mode into relational mode with God, I use a journaling technique that helps me quiet my heart so I can engage with God, sense his nearness and hear his voice. Once I’m calm, prayer and the Word seem to more easily have their effect on me.
Lifestyle adjustments: In describing his struggle with anxiety and depression, J.P. Moreland wrote,

I once heard a Christian psychologist say that we were made to live in a camel culture: slow-paced, relational and no electric lights to keep people up beyond sundown and deprive them of the eight and one half hours of sleep they need each night. But ours is no camel culture. We live in a rapid-paced, highly stressful society. We are constantly surrounded with noise, cell-phones, television. . . . As a result, anxiety and depression are epidemic in America.

Several years ago I woke up to the fact that I was living beyond my means. I was a debtor to sleep. I could no longer keep up with a huge social circle and constant activity. I’d long cheated my body of what it so desperately needed, and I was paying a high price. So here are some lifestyle choices I began to make, and I now prioritize.

Imitation: It’s one thing to read about how to do this stuff—it’s quite another to have someone model it for you. I am forever grateful for a few friends (both living and passed) who have shown me what it looks like to walk through life’s sorrows and stresses, to be prone to anxiety in its extreme forms and still be able to return to joy and peace in Jesus.

Motivation: I won’t pretend that these skills and habits have been easy to learn and implement. Most of my journey has been uphill. But as I have given myself, day in and day out, to working at my deficits, God has met me in amazing ways. As I address these very real issues of chemical imbalances, personality tendencies and stress factors, I’m motivated by more than just a desire to rid my life of panic attacks (although that would be nice!). Rather I long “to grow up in every way into Christ” so that I can increase my capacity to care for people, so I can suffer well and handle more of life’s challenges without losing my joyful identity.

God never gives up on his children. I’m 41 years old and learning things I should have known 20 years ago. But God’s timing is perfect, and he has used panic attacks as cords-of-kindness, to draw me to him and make me love him as I never could have imagined.

I led them with cords of kindness,

   with the bands of love,

and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,

   and I bent down to them and fed them.

Hosea 11:4

A form of this article originally appeared here.

Colleen Chao

Colleen Elisabeth Chao is a freelance editor and the author of the children’s book on suffering, Out of the Shadow World. She blogs about God's kindness to her through the unexpected chapters of her story, including singleness, depression, and cancer. She makes her home in Southern California with her husband Eddie and … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24