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Angela K. Brittain

Don't Forget To Look Up:
The Spiritual Battle in Overcoming Panic Attacks

Angela K. Brittain

I am extremely honored to be a presenter today to bring you an alternative therapy to consider when treating patients with panic attacks, when approaching the topic in research, or perhaps when charting your own course to recovery. I am privileged to say that I am speaking from first-hand experience, myself having been diagnosed with panic disorder in 1988. That makes the research and studies I have done much more alive and real because I have walked through it myself.

What we're going to look at today is the spiritual side of overcoming panic attacks. The battle to recovery is as much a spiritual one as it is a medical, physical and psychological one, and we'll look at how incorporating Scriptural, spiritual principals into the treatment plan is vital to long-term success over the disorder. The second area we are going to look at is the role that fear plays in panic disorder's irrational thinking and anticipatory anxiety.

We all are probably aware of the astounding statistics concerning panic attacks and panic disorder. In the U.S. alone, up to 14 million people have been diagnosed with panic disorder according to a 2002 study at The Ohio State University. The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) says that panic disorder is the number one mental health problem among women and second only to drug abuse among men. More than 26 million people report having had at least one panic attack.

The NIMH and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) indicate that the best treatment for panic disorder is cognitive and behavioral therapy combined with pharmacological medication - whether that be antidepressants, benzodiazepines or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. However, these therapies do not expand into the area of recovery to the extent that I have found to be most vital, and that is in the area of retraining the thoughts. This is where the spiritual battle is first the mind.

There is nothing more scientific than the human mind if you ask me. What a powerful entity! Yet people in panic fear they are losing control of the very functions inside their mind. Most, though, are unaware that their brains are delivering trillions of messages each day via neurotransmitters. In fact, the average person usually doesn't notice that something is wrong until some of these messages are not delivered properly...or, more scientifically speaking, the balance in the brain's chemistry is upset, most likely due to stress.

On the physical side of panic disorder we know that stress is enemy number one, especially if one is genetically predisposed to a lower stress threshold. This lower stress threshold is found in 10% of the American population, and I am sure that it is not much different in other countries. Stress, like we said earlier, upsets the balance of neurotransmitters, it also activates the fight or flight response, depletes the brain's natural tranquilizers and can lead to adrenal exhaustion and fatigue. And when someone is in a fatigued mental state due to stress, it is much easier to succumb to the negative thinking that is so prevalent in a panic disorder. We get attacked in our minds first.

We human beings are a spirit, we have a soul, and we live in a body. But we do have power over our thought processes, however it must be a conscious choice to direct these thoughts. Through the Apostle Paul, God tells us to "Think on these things..." and then he lists various wholesome things that we should consume our minds with: whatever is true, whatever is just, whatever is pure, lovely, kind, whatever has virtue and excellence. And you know, the last time I checked, God was not in the business of telling us to do something that was not possible for us to do. So it must be possible for us to choose our thoughts. We are told in Proverbs 23:7 that as a man thinketh, so is he...This is backed up by the evidence that what you focus on becomes the dominant influence in your life. A conscious effort must be made then to control the thought processes along with receiving therapy and making lifestyle changes that lead to a restoring of balance to the brain's chemistry.

Negative, worrisome thoughts need to be stopped, to be intercepted immediately and turned the other way. They need to be replaced with powerful, positive thoughts. And this is when the spiritual therapy comes in. When an automatic thought like "I will never be able to do this," comes into the mind, replace it immediately with the Word of God. For example, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." How much more powerful is turning right around with an intercepting thought that includes the very Word of God! Proverbs also says that "The Word is life to those who find it and health to all their flesh." And trust me, people with panic disorder do not feel like they have life and health. I can remember waking up in the morning and wondering how on earth I was going to make it through the next few hours, let alone the entire day!

But that is where faith comes in. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not yet seen." We'll talk more about that later but the key to overcoming panic attacks is in what you think and say! You need to be able to instantly recognize automatic, overgeneralizing, irrational thoughts and intercept them with positive, faith-filled thoughts. I use the word "intercept" because I was raised around sports and in American football, if the ball is thrown by one player on team A to another, but a player from team B jumps in and catches it and starts running down the field in the opposite direction, that is called an interception. And that is just what we need to do with our thoughts, intercept them, keep them from going the wrong direction and re-direct them to go the opposite way. It is a choice that we must make if we are going to win the battle of the mind.

It helps to have a very specific action plan as well. I advocate researching every Scripture that deals with worry, anxiety, fear, etc. and having an arsenal full of these weapons. These are the spiritual prescriptions if you will. When I was a senior at Kent State University, I can remember driving to the business administration building where many of my classes were held. I would be nauseated, having difficulty breathing, and having those "floaty feelings." But I would pull out my little notebook full of Scriptures, read them out loud a few times and just clench my teeth and force myself to go in. This part of the battle isn't in the physical realm. Things happen in the spirit through words, before they are seen in the natural, scientific realm. Words are powerful. Words created the universe. And words can change our surroundings. We have what we say. What we say is our faith speaking, so we need to stop saying what we have or don't have and get our arsenal full of weapons that we will use. We need to get these spiritual weapons deep into our soul, which is our mind, will and emotions, so that it will register in our spirits to counter every fragment of old self-talk.

Not all thoughts are our own, they come at us from many sources. But we don't need to "take" every thought that pops into our mind, which means we don't have to receive or accept it. You "take" a thought by saying it. And then it gets down into your spirit or your heart, and from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. New habits of the mind need to be formed. What goes in will come out sooner or later, and you've got to make a deposit before you can make a withdrawal.

It is like when you practice the relaxation response. Once you've practiced relaxation enough, you can recognize instantly when the muscles in your stomach start to tense up. Well, once you've practiced saying what God says about you long enough, you will begin to notice instantly when a negative, false thought creeps in. When your arsenal is full of phrases like, "Greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world;" "The joy of the Lord is my strength;" "He will keep his mind at perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee," you'll be able to go on the offensive. This will also help to restore optimum physical, mental and emotional well-being.

Meditation is also an important part of this spiritual therapy. Dr. Archibald Hart in his book, The Anxiety Cure, says he is convinced that the reason that meditation rates so highly in recovery is that it helps to restore natural tranquilizers. Research reported on showed that 20 of 22 people who practiced prayer or meditation to reduce moderate to severe anxiety showed marked improvement after three months.

Researcher Harold Koenig assessed 2,969 people and concluded that those who attended church at least once a week were significantly less likely to have anxiety-related disorders as those who did not. And devotional activities like prayer and Bible study were linked with lower agoraphobia and other forms of anxiety.

Meditation slows you down and helps to control your thoughts. Concentrative meditation helps the person restrict the influences of the noisy outside world in order to be still for a period of time. It encourages monophasic thinking. It is a spiritual resting and a time to listen to God. I'm not talking here about transcendental meditation or out of the body experiences or other secular forms of mediation, but of prayer, praise or reflection on Scripture.

In a sense we all practice some form of meditation...what form it is depends on what words we are rehearsing over and over in our minds. Worry is rehearsing the enemy's negative, fear-filled words. And meditation, the true form, is rehearsing God's words. He came up with the concept thousands of years ago when He said in Joshua 1:8 to meditate on His words day and night.

God apparently knew what He was talking about because meditation helps your mind and body to be more tranquil. But it is also a spiritual discipline that can enhance your experience with God by drawing nearer to Him and having Him draw nearer to you. As Dr. Hart says, Christian meditation is the literal embodiment of Psalm 46:10, "Be still and know that I am God."

By incorporating Scriptures into your thought intercepting process and practicing Christian meditation, we are treating the entire person - spirit, soul and body. Both thought intercepting and meditation have to do with the mind because that is where the battle is. We've heard it said over and over again that most challenges are 10% physical and 90% mental and I think that holds true here in the case of anxiety and panic attacks.

To illustrate the success of this entire program, I assessed the support group I helped conduct in the year 2000. Twenty-five participants completed the program that addressed frequency of attacks, coping skills, confidence, day-to-day function, overcommitment, negative thinking and anticipatory anxiety, to name a few. Participants showed improvement in all areas except for one, which remained constant. That was the area of anticipatory anxiety. This intrigued me and after delving into it further, I believe the results were what they were because fear is at the root of anticipatory anxiety. And fear is the subject we'll address next.

Fear is the number one enemy in the battle to overcome panic attacks. It's very definition means flight or to run from and its nature is to torment and prevent. Fear is the "supposed thinking," the "what-if" thinking that defines anticipatory anxiety. I found it not coincidental that according to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV (DSMIV), in order for an illness to be classified as a panic disorder, there must be the presence of recurrent, unexpected panic attacks followed by at least one month of persistent concern of having another attack, worry about the possible implications of the attacks, or behavioral change related to the attacks. In other words, you have to be bound by the fear of having another attack in order for it to be considered a panic disorder.

The APA tells us that preclinical science is rapidly providing important insights into the biology of fear. We do know that cells in the amygdala work to form an intense internal alarm system that is the body's way to alert us to the presence of danger. But in anxiety and panic attacks, fear has gone awry. This fear that has gone awry is not just going to go away. It is a foe that needs to be reckoned with and it needs to be confronted. This fear is a spirit sent from hell to torment and destroy us. It is a spirit that attacks our mind with lies. But 2 Tim. 1:7 tells us that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind. This type of fear gone awry is not of God. What God meant for good in the creation of the body's internal alarm system, the enemy took and twisted and perverted and turned it into evil to try and destroy us.

So what is the antidote for this spiritual enemy? Faith. Faith is the only antidote for fear. You see, faith moves God, fear moves the enemy; faith liberates, fear produces bondage; faith guides, fear drives; faith empowers, fear immobilizes. Fear wants to set up camp in your mind!

We are told 365 times in the Bible to fear not. I believe that is once for each day of the year. But I want to point something out here....and I think this is also the key to victory over anxiety and panic attacks. We are told to fear not. We are not told to "sweat not, shake not, tremble not." The Bible says, FEAR NOT! And remember, we said fear means flight or to run from. We will still feel the fear, but we are not to run from the feelings and bow our knee to it. Fear not means do it afraid! Press through! Sounds a lot like exposure therapy and what we told our participants in the support group. They need to go to the grocery store even if it means doing it afraid. Allow themselves to feel the symptoms, but don't bow your knee to them. The only way around it is through it.

American President Franklin D. Roosevelt was right in 1933 when he said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself...nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." He said this prior to World War Two and identified the powerful enemy that can lurk within if we allow it. This fear must be uprooted and the truth implanted so we are freed not merely to survive but to thrive in a dangerous world.

The way we implant the truth is by doing what we mentioned in the first half of this presentation: incorporating God's Word into the positive self-talk and meditating on His Word during our quiet times of rest and relaxation. Once again, from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks and if that is what you are concentrating on and putting in, that is what will come out during times of trouble.

The spirit of fear will attack you and tell you that you are not going to make it. But that is a lie...the devil is a liar, the father of lies actually, and the truth is not in him. So counter these lies with the truth that is programmed into your newly-retrained thinking and He will flee. We are told that if we submit to God we can resist the devil and he will flee.

Another thing happens when we submit to God and that is He moves in. And when He moves in, so does love, and perfect love drives out all fear. We know it won't leave on its own, it needs to be confronted and driven out. King David repeatedly rebuked his fear and reinforced his resolve to move courageously because of his uncompromising confidence in God as his faithful fortress. Why are we not supposed to be afraid? Because God is with us. The Bible says He is and tells us to be of good courage because of it, so we have to have faith, the antidote for fear, faith that God will do what he said. And when we do, fear has to leave.

It is interesting that Hebrews tells us NOW faith is...Faith is now. Present tense. Fear is dreading the future or regretting the past. When we move from the present tense, we are moving into worry or anxiety, which is fear. So instead of worrying about the past or dreading the future, we are to pray about everything and fear nothing, casting all our cares upon Him. Think about this a minute... fear could also be defined as having more faith in the evil one and his lies than in what God says in His Word that He will do. The enemy is so bold to even take faith and twist it to try and destroy us.

We are also told that if we remain "constant and fearless, it is a clear sign, seal and proof to the enemy of his impending destruction and a sure token and evidence of your salvation and deliverance, and that from God." You see, both sides, both good and evil are watching, and both sides have a plan. But we make the choice for whose side we stand firm on.

In summation, I want to point out that the greatest of all fears is the fear of death, the final loss of control for us type A personalities. Sir Francis Bacon said men fear death as children fear to go in the dark. William Shakespeare said cowards die many times before death...the valiant never taste death but once. The writer of Hebrews said that man is destined to die once, and after that face judgment. But Jesus said when addressing fear, "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body; fear Him who can destroy both spirit and body in hell." Instead of fearing what man can do (fear of rejection, fear of failure), we should have reverential fear and awe of God. Other men can only destroy our physical bodies, but God can put us to spiritual death. Psalm 34 tells us there is no want to those who truly revere and worship Him with godly fear. None of us will escape physical death, but we can escape spiritual death by choosing who we will serve. Our spirits will all live forever and there's nothing we can do about that, but we do decide where we'll take up heaven or hell.

My own spiritual battle to overcome panic disorder is accounted for in the book that bears the title of this presentation, Don't Forget To Look Up. Psalm 121 reminds us to do this... "I will lift up my eyes for my help cometh from the Lord.." We all need to pause from our fast-forward, frantic pace in life and do this more often to permanently drive anxiety and panic out of our lives...thank you!

Recommended Reading:

Be Anxious for Nothing, by Joyce Meyer

Spiritual Warfare, by Richard Ing

The Anxiety Cure, by Dr. Archibald Hart

Released from Bondage, by Doctors Neil Anderson and Fernando Garzon, and Judith E. King