What Is Panic Disorder?
I had just come home from class, and it was after 5 p.m. My wife Lacey wasn’t ready for dinner, so I decided to make one of my go-to snacks: a sauteed squash variety that I thinly sliced, seasoned, and sauteed. We were serving in China at the time, and this snack was my attempt at mimicking Arby’s curly fries. Not quite the same, but I liked it nonetheless.
While I was slicing the vegetable, thinking about nothing, my chest suddenly tightened. Breath escaped me. I started to feel my heartbeat, and it felt erratic. I started dripping sweat like a boxer between rounds.
And then, my mind went blank. Totally blank. I was thoughtless and emotionless. I kept slicing the zucchini, but more slowly, staring at the wall in front of me.
Lacey walked by and looked at me. She then stopped what she was doing.
“Are you ok?”
“I don’t know. . .” I slowly responded, continuing to slowly slice zucchini.
“Do you want some water?”
“I. . .don’t. . .know. . .” I said.
“How about you come and sit on the couch,” she encouraged me.
So, I complied. I laid down on the couch for about four hours—trembling, sweating, unable to think or process.
The Impact of the Panic
Slowly, my ability to think began to return. By the fourth hour, though I could think again, I felt like I’d just run a marathon. Lacey was scared. I was. . .tired.
We informed our organization that this had happened, and they encouraged me to see a doctor immediately. But even before I was able to get in to see a doctor, I had the same experience several more times (on different days).
When I did visit the doctor and explain my symptoms to him, he told me that I had “extremely severe panic disorder.” I thought that was kind of cool, as I didn’t want to have a halfhearted issue. It somehow seemed more legitimate since he said “extremely severe.” I still didn’t know quite what it meant though.
The Mayo Clinic website says this about panic attacks:
Panic attacks typically begin suddenly, without warning. They can strike at any time — when you’re driving a car, at the mall, sound asleep or in the middle of a business meeting. You may have occasional panic attacks, or they may occur frequently.
Panic attacks typically include some of these signs or symptoms:
- Sense of impending doom or danger
- Fear of loss of control or death
- Rapid, pounding heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
- Hot flashes
- Abdominal cramping
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
- Numbness or tingling sensation
- Feeling of unreality or detachment
I had the majority of these symptoms, though none of the fear-associated ones.
How to Biblically Understand Panic Disorder
Lacey found my panic attacks scary. I just found them annoying, since they kept me from being productive. But how do you help someone with panic disorder?
First, you must know that two things are both true: (1) God made our bodies good, and (2) they are corrupted by the fall. That’s why Christians are waiting for the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:23)—including those with panic disorder. Since panic disorder is a physical disorder, the person you love with panic disorder needs to know that his or her body is broken, but that same body will be glorified when Jesus returns.
These two things are also true:
- Physical symptoms can be related to sin (Eph. 5:18) or not related to personal sin at all (John 9:2-3).
- Because panic attacks have no known cause, it can be clearly understood that they’re not the direct result of sin (Heb. 12:7).
However, for the same reason, people with panic disorder can experience intense fear of having a panic attack, and they might remove themselves from situations in which they are afraid he might have one. This can result in fearing the creation instead of the Creator (Matt. 10:28-31). It could also result in such a person fearing to engage in his God-given responsibilities (ex. Heb. 10:24-27; 1 Tim. 5:8), which is contrary to God’s command for us to not live in fear.
2 Ways to Help Those with Panic Disorder
First of all, it’s not bad to treat physical symptoms with medications and lifestyle changes. These won’t make a person obedient, but they can make life more pain-free. Medications, exercise, and diet changes were all important for me, and have helped a lot.
Secondly, a person who is suffering not just from panic disorder, but from associated fear, must be addressed biblically. Depending on the depth of the fear, they might require several solid biblical counseling sessions. However, they, in short, may need help being able to get clarity on what exactly isn’t sin, but also what is. They may need an external source telling them the gospel—that Christ came into the world to save sinners. They may need to be informed of their duties from the Bible. And they may need help in doing the things they’re called to do. They may also simply need to be comforted that their panic attacks aren’t letting God down. And you should make it clear that you’re not disappointed with them, either. Remember, the goal here is faithfulness to God and his law—not to peoples’ plans.
At the end of the day, panic disorder can be alleviated. But our hope isn’t in the eradication of symptoms. Our hope is glorified bodies when Jesus returns and fruit from the Spirit as we trust Christ to be true to his promises.