What a Panic Attack Taught Me

My heart was beating so hard I thought it was going to fall out of my chest.

I had just left a doctor’s appointment one particular day in March 2012. My doctor and I discussed some emerging health concerns that I was having. We weren’t sure if it was diet, genetics, age, sleep habits or something else that was causing these concerns. That day we started working on diagnosing my minor issues so that we could begin working on a solution. And as soon as I got home, I laid down to take a nap but I could not fall asleep. All of a sudden, I had to force myself to breathe. And then my heart started pounding…and pounding hard. I thought I was having a heart attack. So like any normal American male, I got in my car, headed to a work meeting and hoped I wouldn’t die on the way.

Thankfully, I didn’t die. I made it through the meeting. I went home, had dinner and decided to rest for the evening. Around 11pm, it happened again…shortness of breath, heart pounding, fear rising. I realized that I was not having a heart attack, but a panic attack. I had another around 2am that night. I woke up the next morning and canceled all of my meetings for three days. I figured I just needed to rest and I would be okay. Besides, I wanted to check out this new show called Downton Abbey that my UK friends had raved about. Between the DA episodes and nothing else but sleep were three or four panic attacks each day. I was frightened for my life and wasn’t completely sure what to do.

So many things went through my head over the course of those few days. There was one particular event that was extremely unexpected. Staying in my room watching Netflix all day eventually made me restless. So I decided to do something I would not normally do: go for a short run. I know, I know…why would I do that in the midst of multiple panic attacks in so few days. I have no idea, but I did it anyways. And please understand me, I hate running more than anyone really knows. Somehow, in the state I was in, it seemed like the best idea at the time.

It was a short run — like 10 minutes. About three minutes in, something completely unexpected happened. My heart was beating fast, and it felt right. In fact, my heart felt better during those 10 minutes of running than it had for the last two days. I was so shocked and relieved by this that I decided to go for another 10 minute run the next day as another panic attack was starting. Those runs gave me hope that I was going to be okay. What followed was an immediate call to my doctor that Monday morning. Two years later, through prayer and strong friendships along with doctor-monitored treatment, counseling, regular exercise and more sleep, I can honestly say that I have never felt better about my life than I do today. Those few days of multiple panic attacks were some of the scariest I had ever experienced. That weekend also set in motion a journey that taught me more lessons that I have time to tell.

I decided to post this reflection for a number of reasons. Maybe you have had a panic attack at some point — know that you are not alone. Maybe you are processing news that is causing anxiety or added stress in your life — you are not alone either. Or maybe you just need to get an extra hour of sleep and spend a couple of days a week in the gym — you are not alone. If you are struggling, reach out. There is no need for you to struggle alone.

There is one more thing: sometimes (and I do mean some of the time, not all of time), the answer to the issues of our hearts (physically and spiritually) is not necessarily to pull back. Some times the answer is to push forward. We have more than enough things in our lives that put negative demands on our hearts. So few people find good, right and healthy reasons that make their hearts beat faster. I wonder if the aches and pains of the heart, that often shut us off from people, are actually deep calls from within to get out of the house and out into the world. For some of us, it might be time to put a good spiritual demand on our hearts. Who knows, you may find that your heart never felt better.

Friends, take care of yourself — you matter in this world and to the plan of God. And by all means, find the space that makes your heart beat faster in all the right ways for all the right reasons.

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