JJ Heller on overcoming fear and panic attacks.

JJ Heller
JJ Heller

If you found your way to this post, it probably means that you, like me, struggle with fear. The first thing I want to tell you is that you're not alone, you're not going crazy and God is not disappointed with you.

Something that was and is really important on my own journey of healing is hearing other people's stories, so here is a bit of mine. I first started dealing with panic attacks in 2003 when my husband, Dave, and I graduated from college, got married, moved to another state and decided to pursue music as a career all within a span of one month. My mom was also dealing with severe depression at the time, and my body didn't know how to handle it.

At first I was convinced I was dying of something because of the strange health symptoms I was experiencing. These physical reactions seemed to come out of nowhere and would scare the living daylights out of me! I would be sitting on the couch and all of a sudden I would notice my fingers starting to tingle and go numb, my heart would start pounding, I'd have trouble breathing, and I'd feel dizzy like I might pass out. It was terrifying.

On several occasions I went to the doctor to figure out what was wrong, and each time I was told I was incredibly healthy. I even had a heart monitor hooked up for 24 hours, but even that reported I was healthy as well. Instead of feeling relieved, I was frustrated that they couldn't find the cause of my symptoms, and I was still convinced it was only a matter of days until I would be knocking on death's door.

It wasn't until I started doing my own research that I discovered I wasn't dying, I was having panic attacks! I hadn't even considered that possibility because I thought panic attacks were all psychological, but my symptoms weren't just in my head. I was REALLY feeling strange symptoms in my body.

After I realized I was suffering from panic disorder, at first I was relieved that I wasn't dying. Then I was faced with the challenge of figuring out how to make the awful panic attacks stop happening. To be honest, it's been a really long, tough road. I've done a ton of work in the past with a great counsellor who has encouraged me to let others know about my experience. She said that anxiety is often coupled with a lack of assertiveness, which makes sense to me. I am definitely NOT assertive by nature, so it's something I've been working on.

When I speak up and use my voice, it helps me get out of the mind-set that I'm powerless and I can't handle the hardships of life. The more I've shared about my experience with anxiety, the less I feel trapped by it. I encourage you to find at least one safe person in your life to be your sounding board about your struggle. Let them know when you're having a hard time. Sometimes even the act of speaking your fears out loud takes most of the power out of those fears.

In talking to my counsellor, I also realised that I was under the impression that I was doing something wrong. I would think to myself, "If I could just pray more," or "If I was stronger then I could get better." I discovered that even though God doesn't like to see me suffer, He is still using my anxiety and panic attacks to remind me that He is in control and that I can't do this on my own.

It is by His grace that I can face each day, and know in my heart that He is good, and He's going to take care of me. When I obsess about the future and all of the possible worst case scenarios, I'm expressing my desire for control. I want God to do what I think is best instead of trusting His plan for my life. I'm learning that the more I'm willing to let go of that control, the more peace I feel.

Here's a practical tip I've learned along the way: When you start having scary or anxious thoughts, it's helpful to really focus on them for a minute, and then counter them with a statement of truth. That way they're not always swimming around under the surface, causing you to feel unsettled.

For example, if your scary thought is, "What if I just keep getting worse and start to go crazy, etc.," then just take a second to think (or say out loud), "God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind. I'm not crazy. The fear will pass."

Or if you're like me and you swear that your latest cough is an indication that you're dying of lung cancer, take a moment to tell yourself, "I am a healthy person. It's very unlikely that I'm going to die from this cough. I can wait a few days to see if this gets worse, and if it does I can get medicine."

Those are just a couple examples. The important thing is to remind yourself of what you know is TRUE. You can figure out scripture and truths that resonate with you. I know that thinking this way has really helped me. If you want to take this exercise one step further, it's even more helpful to write it all down.

You can write down every scary thought, then underneath it you write the truth. It is a bit time-consuming, but it's really effective. When I did this, I eventually came to the place where I was so tired of writing down my scary, worried thoughts that I would stop them mid-thought so I wouldn't have to pull out my notepad!