Self Help for Panic Attacks: How to Pray and How NOT to Pray When You Feel the Overwhelming Symptoms of Stress

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words …  Romans 8:26 (NASB)

Knowing how to pray just before or during a panic attack comes from understanding the nature of anxiety symptoms and panic attacks.  For Christians, self help for panic attacks means stepping through a process by faith.  “Self help” does not mean, “I conquer panic in my own strength.”  Rather, “self help” means that there are attitudes you must adopt and actions you must perform if you are going to tame the wild beasts of panic attacks,  anxiety, and extreme symptoms of stress.

What are Panic Attacks?  The Clinical Definition

So, self help for panic attacks by faith begins with defining what we are talking about.  Let’s answer this question in two ways.  First, we will look at the clinical definition.  Then, I will describe what a panic attack feels like.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV), when 4 or more of the following extreme symptoms of stress develop abruptly, reach a peak within 10 minutes and create intense fear or discomfort, you are experiencing an ‘official’ panic attack.

  1. palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  2. sweating
  3. trembling or shaking
  4. sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  5. feeling of choking
  6. chest pain or discomfort
  7. nausea or abdominal distress
  8. feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  9. derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization being detached from oneself)
  10. fear of losing control or going crazy
  11. fear of dying
  12. paresthesias (numbing or tingling sensations)
  13. chills or hot flushes

The list above doesn’t begin to capture what panic attacks actually feel like.  Self help for panic attacks by faith means cultivating the discernment to recognize exactly how the symptoms of anxiety feel.  Why?  Because how you understand your sensations of anxiety will largely determine how you pray and how you approach taming panic attacks.  Here is more of an insider’s look at explaining a panic attack:

What is a Panic Attacks? What Does Feel Like in Your Body?

Excessive sweating from hot or cold flashes can leave you drenched for no apparent reason. You might feel a
trembling deep inside or you may be unable to control the outward shaking of your body. Numbness or a burning sensation is common and your hands and feet might tingle with pins and needles.  Self help for panic attacks begins with inviting God into your anxiety and into the tunnel of your fear.  It means noticing specific feelings and sensations in your body.  Self help for panic attacks also means adopting, by faith, an attitude of serenity and acceptance.

What? Are you kidding?  An attitude of acceptance?!  What about spiritual warfare?

Trying to do combat against panic attacks is little bit like jumping up and down on a dirt pile in order to get the dust to settle.  Some storms  in life are calmed by calm words rather than fierce challenge.  The book of Proverbs says, “a soft answer turns away wrath (anger).”  It’s sometime true that a soft words also turn away panic.  Here is an example of such words in the famous serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.  Let’s look for a moment at what a panic attack feels like in various parts of the body.

Your Heart Feels Like its Turning into a Jackhammer

One of the scariest symptoms is chest pain, tightness and pressure. Your heart may beat very hard or fast and feel like it could jump out of your chest. Or you may experience palpitations, where it skips a beat or two and feels like it’s flopping around.

Your Breathing Becomes Shallow and Labored

What You Feel in Your Lungs:  You’re very conscious of each breath you take and although your rate of breathing increases, it also becomes more shallow. Catching your breath is difficult and the sensation of feeling smothered or
suffocating is common.

The Thoughts in Your Head Feel Out of Control

What it Feels Like inside Your Head:  It’s difficult to concentrate and your thoughts are running at a hundred miles an hour. Disoriented and confused, it feels like you’re living in a time warp where the world around you isn’t real (derealization). You may feel cut off from your surroundings as if you’re underwater and everything is out of reach (depersonalization). Thoughts of having a heart attack, losing your mind, dying, and becoming trapped are all very common fears for anyone having a panic attack.  Hyperventilation (over-breathing) results in dizziness and lightheadedness. Your vision may blur or you might have ringing in your ears. You could feel unsteady as if things are
whirling around or as though your head is swimming and this adds to the fear that you might faint or pass out.

You Feel Like You Are Choking or Being Smothered

What it Feels Like in Your Throat:  Muscles in your throat contract which leads to a feeling of being choked or strangled. Your mouth is dry and it may feel as if there’s a lump stuck in the back of your throat that stops your
ability to swallow.

What it Feels Like in Your Gut:  Extreme Symptoms of Stress

Butterflies or tightness as if you’ve been punched is common in the abdominal area, along with feeling bloated
or nauseous. Painful diarrhea and a lack of appetite may leave a tinny or metallic taste in your mouth.

Now keep in mind that most people do not experience all 13 symptoms at once.  A panic attack is made up of any combination of at least 4 of the 13 possible ingredients.  But if you have the facts about all 13 symptoms of stress (extreme stress) you can begin to change the way you pray.  If you understand what is happening to you, then you can reassure yourself that you really will not die from any of the panic attack symptoms. Factual knowledge of the physical symptoms of anxiety attacks is often the first step in accepting a panic attack like a wave that is rolling over you, but which will not kill you.  I have found that such turbulent serenity is one of the keys to the door of relief.  Even the most extreme, overwhelming symptoms of stress can be tamed, reduced, and often stopped entirely.

A Tip for Praying When an Anxiety Attack is Upon You

The desperation of a panic attack can make even the hardiest of believer cry out to God.  However, it’s really not the best way to pray.  It’s much better to steady yourself by talking to God in a matter-of-fact way as if you are observing the symptoms with him.  “God, thank you that this panic attack is not going to kill me.  Stay with me while this wave rolls over me…”  The point here is that you need to pray in such a way as to calm yourself–even just a little bit.  Praying with desperation can often end up being a religious way to throw the gasoline on the very fire (panic) that needs to be quenched.  Self help for panic attacks…by faith…means accepting the panic, welcoming it, letting it be.  It sounds strange, but somehow accepting it really helps to deflate fear and allows the panic to wither away.

During a panic attack it’s better to simply say to yourself, “A panic attack is a miserable, confusing experience, but it won’t kill me.  I trust that God will help me figure out what is going on when it is over.”  This is what I mean by self help for panic attacks, by faith.  It is God’s help coming in and through the self.  At least in the case of self help for panic attacks faith involves just walking steadily and serenely through the dark tunnel of anxiety instead of frantically trying to climb the walls.

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