We were six years into our church plant when my husband had his first panic attack. There is never a convenient time for panic to strike, but this seemed like the worst possible timing. We had been working for over a year to merge our church with the small Baptist church whose property we were renting. After months of grueling negotiations, the merger was almost complete—until a letter showed up on our welcome mat.
It was from the head of the Baptist church’s trustees, and it was extortion. “Meet my demands or you are out in a month.” For my already stressed-out, not-sleeping, hanging-by-a-thread husband, it was the knife that sliced the final filament of mental control. Instantly, the panic took hold—the room-spinning, heart-racing, breath-shortening, chest-tightening waves. It was December, but he paced outside for hours, unable to reenter the space where the attack began.
The Physical Manifestation of Stress
My husband is an all-or-nothing kind of guy. A fighter. A promoter. A disrupter. He’s also a number five on the Enneagram, so he gets stuck in his head. When we were first married, I bought him a t-shirt that read, “Wound tight.” I still think that phrase describes him best. He paces while on the phone, talks to himself under his breath, and is a constant idea factory. Most of the time, he’s fun to be around. Leading up to his first panic attack, he was not.
Everything he used to do for recreation became an escape—or a desperate attempt to recharge. He isolated himself from the family under his headphones and behind his computer screen. His temper was quicker, his patience thinner. He rarely laughed, which if you know him is completely out of character. He never slept eight hours in a row.
Looking back, I see how much weight he was carrying with this church merger. A year prior, he had convinced our people to move to this dilapidated building with the expectation that the merger would be successful. He had met for two hours every single week with the leadership of the Baptist church. Not a week had gone by without some sort of conflict. He was doing his best to quell the mild to moderate outrage over every change (switching out pews for chairs, removing the organ and the American flag, allowing coffee in the sanctuary), and reassure our people that we could fix up the place and make it home. Moreover, he was constantly having to do what he is not wired to do: keep his mouth shut to avoid hurt feelings.
We did not know it at the time, but he was primed for an explosion.
We’ve since learned that the onset of panic attacks is not random, but almost always connected to stress. In his book Adrenaline and Stress, Dr. Archibald Hart cites research that up to ninety-six percent of panic attacks are preceded by high stress. This does not have to be stress caused by major trauma but can be prolonged small stresses. The stress hormone cortisol, when produced at high levels over a prolonged period, can form a barrier to the brain’s natural tranquilizers, blocking them from their natural ability to lower stress. Once you experience your first panic attack, however, future attacks are not always triggered by prolonged stress but can barge in at unexpected moments.
Panic’s Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Toll
That first wave of panic for my husband launched months of slogging through dark places. He was helpless to stop the physical symptoms of feeling chased by a lion. No amount of prayer, slow breathing, or exercise could stop the heartburn, the excessive sweating, the heart pounding out his chest. For the first time in his life, he felt completely powerless to stem the emotional tide of crippling fear. He was suddenly afraid to be anywhere he couldn’t readily escape. Dentists, airplanes, small cars, elevators, even crowded malls were danger zones. He feared impending doom, death, and most of all, having more panic attacks.
Much worse than the trauma of being out of physical and emotional control, however, was the spiritual toll. He cried out to God night after night to stop the anguish, and God was silent. Guilt and shame were his dark passengers, his tormentors. He searched his heart for any hidden rebellion. He confessed and repented with a fervency he’d never known. He was desperate to bend God’s ear. Night after sleepless night he stared into the gas fireplace of our living room feeling utterly alone. God did not come to his rescue.
As a perverse, added layer of suffering, in the midst of this darkest night of his soul, he still had to get up every week and share the hope of the gospel with his congregation. Only a few noticed his use of a stool while he preached, or the longer than usual pauses between thoughts to steady his mind. I prayed him through every sermon.
I hated watching my once strong, life-of-the-party husband be dragged by unseen hands through the muck of anxiety and despair. Helping him had always been my gig, but there was no helping him out of this hell. I could only watch impotently from the sidelines and do my best to shield our four young children from the insecurity of sensing something was wrong with Dad. I took them on fun outings, plastered on a smile and used my best imitation-chipper tone to hide the fact that Dad was in pain. It was exhausting.
Slowly, gradually, arduously, my husband reemerged from his slough of despond, not by exerting greater faith, but by surrendering to the little green pills he now carries in his pocket. Armed with the advice of fellow travelers and the knowledge gained by research, he was able to succumb without guilt to the relief offered by those pills. They are not a cure–eight years later, anxiety still barges in unannounced—but they allow my husband to think clearly enough to name his tormentor, and they calm his blood pressure enough to ride the wave until it subsides.
Accepting God’s Provision in Any Form
My husband had reservations about taking pills, which looking back now seem silly, but in case there is anyone reading this who is battling whether or not to medicate, here are some issues he had to work through. First, he had to get over feeling weak. The book I mentioned earlier, Adrenaline and Stress, cites research to show that the strongest among us are the most vulnerable to anxiety. Some of the most capable people go to work every day with those little green pills in their pockets. Many of them, like my husband, probably tried to white knuckle it for a while, resisting the “easy way out,” but he eventually came to see the pills as no different than treating a headache with ibuprofen.
Second, he had to work things out with God. For a time, he was resentful of the fact that his cries for help went unheeded. In a moment of melodrama, he held up a pill in God’s face and yelled, “These were there for me when you weren’t!” Almost immediately after voicing his complaint, he sensed God’s reply, “I can use a pill as easily as a miracle.” Now, every time he boards a plane or heads to the dentist, he thanks God not only for the medication in his pocket, but for the anxiety itself which marks out in red the boundaries of his humanness.
Medication is not the only tool he employs to tamp down panic—he has learned healthy ways to manage stress through slowing down, exercising, and getting good sleep—but in unavoidable scenarios where panic threatens, those pills are a Godsend.
Choosing to Tell
A few months after his attacks began to wane, my husband, being the blunt truth-teller that he is, decided to reveal his struggles to the church on a Sunday morning. I pleaded with him not to share. I wanted to protect him from the blowback that was sure to result, but there was a part of me that wanted to keep up the impenetrable pastor and supportive wife veneer. Revealing weakness, I feared, would smudge or even crack it. He had the courage not to give in to my fears.
The blowback happened as I predicted it would. Two long-standing families left our church having lost respect for him as their pastor. But it was a whimper compared to the tsunami of support, and the number of timid “me toos” drawn out from the shadows. One after another, people we knew and loved shared their stories of anxiety, emboldened by the raw honesty of their pastor.
To this day, my husband regularly offers care and support to fellow anxiety sufferers in a way that inspires my awe and admiration. What if he had remained silent? How many people might still believe they were alone in their suffering? This was the great lesson for me. Exposure comes at a cost, but the freedom and shared humanity on the other side is worth every vulnerable step.
Cover image by Thought Catalog.
 Archibald D. Hart, Adrenaline and Stress (LaVergne, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995).
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