It was barely 7:00 in the morning of a brand new day. I was driving on the interstate at 75 mph—yes, speeding, I don’t need your judgment—and on a fairly sharp curve when it hit me. My heart pounded. My mind raced. I broke out in a full sweat. I was having a panic-attack. This was the first time I had ever experienced this phenomena. I pulled off the interstate and sat in my truck shaking. I called my wife and tried to put into words what had just happened to me. I was scared. My explanation sounded strange. Something was wrong with me.
I had just experienced my first panic-attack. It was brought on by a slow-building, but ever-increasing, internal war. Though I was unaware of it before the panic-attack, and was not very clear about it afterwards, I was suffering from anxiety.
And I was only 24 years old.
My family and I had been through a lot in the last year. I left a job paying a six-figure salary to enter into ministry—many thought I was less than intelligent. By “enter into ministry,” I mean responding to God’s prompting to go where He was leading me, though I did not know where that was. I had no college education. In fact, my panic-attack was en route to the community college I was attending—paid for by the US Army—to begin my undergraduate work. I was given $150 per month from my church to do an internship and was working several side jobs to make ends meet.
In addition to the financial change and uncertainty about what God was calling me to do, we had our world rocked with our son. He was born at 30 weeks in March of 2004 and had kidney problems. A surgery to remove his bad kidney was scheduled. This was supposed to be the last page of the horror we had experienced over the last several months. It was only the first page of the story.
Our son’s surgery to remove his bad kidney went terribly wrong. Doctors accidentally removed both his bad kidney AND his good kidney. We were devastated. Our son was near death. We had emergency surgery to place a dialysis catheter in him, in hopes of saving his life. By God’s grace, dialysis worked. For months leading up to my panic-attack in the truck, we lived hour-by-hour on edge. Our son’s life would be changed forever. Our lives had been changed forever.
During that time as the husband, father, and leader of my family, I sought to be a steady rock for my family. Our entire family and circle of friends were devastated. I attempted to be the optimistic and stabilizing force for what we were going through. My daily efforts led to a suppression of my own need to emotionally process what had happened. My body eventually said “enough” and did so by way of a crippling anxiety.
That morning on the interstate began what has been an 11-year journey of battling anxiety. I have never taken medicine for it—though I am not against that—and some seasons have been worse than others. I have learned some important lessons about dealing with anxiety. Here are four pieces of advice on dealing with anxiety that I believe can be helpful for anyone, but I hope would be helpful to pastors.
1. Share Your Struggle With Others
For the first year I had anxiety issues, only my wife knew about it. I felt embarrassed by it. I felt weak. I could not rationalize my anxiety away and that drove me nuts. I knew there was no reason to feel panicky at a movie theatre or driving down the road, but it did not matter; it happened anyway. I thought I was going crazy. However, I finally started to vocalize my struggle with a few folks and immediately found relief. I realized that I was not alone. I also discovered that MANY others deal with anxiety as well (nearly 20% of the adult population). You do not have to hide your struggle, friends. Find some people to talk to.
2. Labor to Take Care of Your Body
The longer I had anxiety, the more I started to discover my triggers. I noticed that as my stress levels rose at work and my eating, sleeping, and exercise were unhealthy patterns, anxiety increased. When I was sleeping well, eating healthier, and getting exercise, my anxiety was dramatically better. For me, exercise became non-negotiable. If you struggle with anxiety, you have to make time to take care of your body. Let the awfulness of what a panic-attack feels like motivate you to go to the gym or go for a run. You cannot emotionally afford to be physically unhealthy.
3. Seek Rest and Peace in Christ
One of the “benefits” of struggling with anxiety is the absolute dependence on Christ it fostered. Passages like Matthew 11’s description of Jesus’ invitation to come to Him with my burdens and find rest became bedrock. Isaiah 41:10 and Psalm 46 reminded me that He is with me, and not to fear, but to trust upon His very present help in my time of need. 2 Corinthians 12:9 reminded me of the all-sufficient grace of Jesus in my weakness. These passages did not make my anxiety magically disappear, instead they equipped me with the truth I needed to battle against it. In a strange way, my worst moments of anxiety were some of my closest times with the Lord. The peace of Christ can indeed rule in our hearts (Colossians 3).
4. Pray for God to Redeem Your Anxiety
One of the paradoxical realities of anxiety for me was seeing God use it to minister to others. I hated the feeling anxiety and panic-attacks brought to me. However, God used this crippling feeling to open doors of ministry to others. As I pastored my church and listened to people describe anxiety or depression, I could immediately empathize with them and share ways the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, was helping me daily. If you struggle with anxiety, pray God would redeem it in your life. Pray God would use it to open doors of ministry to those in your congregation and those who perhaps are lost or unchurched. Romans 8:28 is fulfilled every time our anxiety can be used for an opportunity for ministry.
My son is now eleven years old. He received a kidney transplant from his mom at two years old. It was a gift from God. But we are not out of the woods. Kidney transplants do not last forever. He has experienced other health problems due to all the trauma he has experienced. I have learned that suffering and trials will always be a part of our story. These four pieces of advice I have outlined are not things of the past, but very much a part of my present and future. By God’s grace, perhaps He would use them for yours as well.