The Slow Path from Panic to Peace

Two days before Thanksgiving I had a panic attack. I didn’t know it was a panic attack at the time, but when I described the symptoms to a friend – elevated heart rate for days on end, extreme muscle tension, chest pain, the inability to calm my body even when my brain knew I wasn’t in danger – she was able to provide the diagnosis.

Let me back up. I got married in July, and in the following months people kept asking me how “newlywed life” was going. This question irked me, because I didn’t feel like Joel and I were typical newlyweds. Joel is 44 and has a 16-year-old daughter. We also serve in a parenting role with Kalia, who is 20, and share our home with two other housemates, for a total of six residents. Almost overnight, I went from being a single woman in my late 20s, to being the married stepmother of a teenager living in community. Meanwhile, Joel was beginning his first year as a school teacher.

There are certain things that are guaranteed to cause anxiety. Transition is one of them. At first, the anxiety is “acute” – a spike of nervous energy for a limited duration of time. If we have healthy relationships and the tools to deal with these incidents as they occur, we can manage our anxiety and return to a place of calm. However, if we don’t process as we go, that “acute anxiety” will gradually turn into “chronic anxiety,” which becomes the background noise of our life. “Chronic anxiety” is a state of constant hypervigilance, where your body forgets how to determine if you are safe or not.  “It’s ok, we’re not in danger,” you tell yourself. But your body doesn’t listen. “Yes we are!” it says, with every thump of your heart. “THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! – Yes we are! Yes we are! Yes we are!”

One more thing about anxiety – it’s additive. Whatever your base or “chronic” level is, every “acute” incident gets piled on top. If you are at a base level of 2 (on a scale of 1 to 10), and you experience something moderately anxiety-inducing, which is worth, say, 3 points on the scale, now you’re at a 5. And then one more small thing happens, 1 point on the scale, and you’re at a 6. The number will keep climbing until you pause and process those experiences. The fact that you are higher on the scale doesn’t make “smaller” incidents less significant. On the contrary, heightened anxiety weakens your processing faculties, so small incidents actually become more significant.

This abstract model became my physical reality in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. You see, I was still recovering from the massive transition that took place in July. Between Joel and myself, we ticked off at least four major categories of transition, and almost all of those included complicating factors – i.e. second marriage, blended family, community living. Any one of those could cause a serious spike in anxiety, but four simultaneously is an anxiety cocktail.

And it had been a particularly tough week. Joel was suffering from a sinus infection, which combined with the stress of being a first-year teacher, knocked him flat. And then, on the Friday before Thanksgiving, I was taking Grace to dance practice – she was driving, because she asked and she’s a good driver and I always want her to get more practice – but there was a lot of traffic that morning, and she was trying to get over to make her exit, and she looked back to make sure no one was coming, and it was clear, so she stepped on the gas and BAM – hit the car in front, smashed into it, definitely our fault, on the highway, during rush hour, and Joel is home sick, probably asleep – not answering his phone, not answering, not answering – my heart is racing, I step out of the car, I’m shaking, cars are speeding by, I’m in a daze, Grace and I change seats so I can move the car over to the shoulder, head is spinning, should I still take her to dance practice? Will the car still drive? – not answering, not answering, not answering – her school is nearby, I could drop her off there, but then I would have to pick her up, and does the car still drive? Am I supposed to comfort Grace right now, protect her? Teach her how to exchange insurance? Allude to consequences? Impart some kind of parental wisdom? – not answering – “It’s going to be ok,” I say, feeling unsteady, talking to the pregnant woman we hit, her first accident, Am I doing this right?

We make it home, Joel is still asleep, I don’t want to wake him, don’t want this news to be the first thing he hears today.

It’s five days before Grace’s birthday, the one thing she wants more than anything is her driver’s license, but now we don’t have a car for her to use for the road test, and Kalia is scheduled to take the test on the same day, but she needs more practice, and we don’t have a car for her to practice on either, and what if one of them passes and the other one fails?

Joel wakes up, I tell him what happened, he sort of takes it in, but he’s too tired to really get it. Your daughter and I got in a car accident! I want to scream. Have you ever had to wonder, by yourself, how to be a parent in that situation?

I call the insurance company – holding, holding, holding – I tell them what happened, they tell me to get an estimate from the body shop – holding, holding, holding – I make an appointment, Grace’s birthday, the earliest available.

That night is a friend’s rehearsal dinner, Joel still isn’t feeling well so I go alone, but in his car, which is manual, which I am not confident driving, especially in rush hour traffic on the highway, my body is impossibly tense – don’t stall out, don’t stall out, don’t stall out – I forget to breathe, my neck is tight.

The next day, the wedding, again driving Joel’s car, again without Joel. It’s an hour away – don’t stall out – holding breath, tensing muscles.

Monday night is date night, India Grill in Arlington. I am hunched over at our table, cannot unhunch, cannot relax. My thoughts are swirling – what if both girls don’t pass their driving tests? What if they do, and then they’re always fighting over the car, and I’m stuck in the middle, having to choose, getting accused of favoritism on both sides? The okra is stringy. Bleak.

Tuesday night – the car situation is still not resolved. We’ve borrowed a car for the test, but need to return it across town that evening, and Grace wants a car to go out with a friend for her birthday, and we need a way to get the injured car to the body shop – logistically this is a nightmare. Joel and Grace are looking at pictures from past birthdays, tomorrow is her birthday, she will be 16, which is a big deal, I want to write her a letter but not sure when, I want everything to be special but not sure how, if they only have one car for the road test and one of them doesn’t pass then the other will be stuck at the DPS for hours marinating in shame, shame, shame, I go upstairs to take a bath, I am trying to breathe slowly, I measure my heart rate, 90 beats per minutes, I think, if I am calculating right, 50% faster than normal, I feel like it is going to pound out of my chest, I can feel the blood pulsing through my neck, I think my veins might burst, it won’t stop, it won’t stop, it won’t stop, I am breathing slowly, I am calming my thoughts, I am breathing slowly, I am calming my thoughts, why won’t my heart slow down, what happens if it won’t slow down, it does not listen, it does not listen, it does not listen, breath does not slow it, it rages, it courses, it rampages, it does not slow down, I am not sad but it feels good to cry, so I cry, I breathe and I cry and my heart does not slow down – Joel comes upstairs and sees that I am not ok, he sees that I have been crying, that my face is red and contorted, I fight the shame that wants to flood my body, I struggle to make eye contact, I want to look down, down, down, to curl into a ball, but I look up and –

“Peace,” he says. “Peace.”

Calm. Confident. Definitive.

He puts his hand over my heart, “Peace.”

I breathe. I try to take in what he’s saying, try to take it into my body, into my cells, into my veins. “Peace.” I breathe it in, deep, deep breaths. “Peace.” It will be ok, I tell myself. I don’t have to hold everything together. If I let go, everything will not fall apart. I am not alone. Everything is going to be ok.

My body did not immediately return to normal. The next day was very tough. My worst fears about the driving test became reality – one passed, one didn’t. And the impact of that disparity was more severe than I could have imagined. But I kept breathing. “Peace.”

Two weeks later and I feel mostly ok. My heart is still beating faster than I would like. Still easily triggered by brake lights on the highway. Still some tension in my neck and shoulders. So there is more processing to be done, more relaxation practices to remind my body that I am safe. But I am headed in the right direction. Things are getting better, not worse.

My recovery from an experience that easily could have continued to spiral downward is due to two enormous blessings in my life. First, I have a husband who embodies the love and peace of God and is able to impart those gifts to me in moments of need. And second, my work centers around helping people grow in emotional health, so I have learned some anxiety management skills along the way.

But what about people who don’t have a loving community around them? Or who lack the tools to climb out of the anxiety sinkhole? What about the man who is shamed by his wife for being weak? Or the woman who is accused of being a hypochondriac? Or the child who lives in so much chaos that no one even notices her symptoms? If you have had an experience like the one I described above and don’t have someone in your life who can impart grace to you, I ache for you. If you were here with me now, I would look into your eyes, put my hand on your heart, and say, “Peace.” You are loved, and you are loved, and you are loved. And you’re not crazy. There is a reason your body is behaving this way. Your body, for reasons that once made sense, is in a state of hypervigilance. But it is not forever. With time, and love, and breath, you will return to your intended design – calm, balance, peace. If the imbalance has gone on long enough, you may require medication and therapy as part of the healing process. There is no shame in this. Anxiety is a mental and physical reality, so it requires mental and physical solutions.

Whoever you are, whatever resources are available to you, there are at least two things you can do to grow in managing your anxiety. The first is to seek out a safe person. This should be someone you trust, who will be present with you and listen, who will not contribute to your anxiety by questioning or shaming you for your experience. If you don’t know someone who fits this description, a licensed therapist can serve in this role. The act of simply speaking out your internal dialogue to another human being is very powerful. Even if all you can say is, “I feel anxious. My thoughts are racing and my chest hurts.” That’s a great start. The second thing you can do is learn to practice breathing and relaxation techniques. Practicing these exercises on a regular basis over time will not only give you a valuable tool in moments of acute anxiety, but will also lower your base level of anxiety.

My ultimate goal, of course, isn’t to merely manage my own anxiety. As I continue to grow in these skills, my capacity to embody love and peace to others grows as well. This is what Joel did for me, and it is a gift I want to give to those around me – my children, my clients, friends, strangers. I can think of no greater gift to give someone in this season of Advent, when we contemplate the God of Peace coming to live among us.

Through the heartfelt mercies of our God,
    God’s Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness,
    those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way, one foot at a time,
    down the path of peace.

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Reflection Questions:

  1. What do you notice about my story? What stands out to you?
  2. What symptoms accompany anxiety for you? (Think about physical, mental, and behavioral.)
  3. What relationships or situations tend to trigger anxiety in you?
  4. What would “Peace” look like for you in this season? What steps could you take toward this vision in the next week?
  5. Who are three people in your life who struggle with anxiety, who you could share these resources with?

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Resources:

Session #6 Anxiety (Faithwalking: Transformation Journey) – This is an excerpt from the Faithwalking materials that deals specifically with anxiety. Check it out to learn more about how anxiety works and what to do about it. Includes a description of the 4 anxiety postures, as well as “meaning making.”

Anxieties.com – Take an anxiety self-assessment, as well as more information on a number of different anxiety-related phenomena (e.g. social anxiety, PTSD, phobias). Be sure to check out the relaxation and breathing skills.

Psychology Today therapist directory – Seeking a therapist can be an overwhelming task, especially since the need is greatest when we feel weakest! Use this directory to find someone near you who could be a good fit. Just type in your zip code, and then use the filters in the left sidebar to narrow down your search.