When “Anxiety” Is Not A Sin – My Journey Through the Labyrinth Of Panic Disorder

For anyone who struggles with depression, anxiety or panic attacks I understand the hurt, fear and often shame associated with these disorders and my heart breaks for anyone who has to struggle with these experiences. My friend Diane from “Theology for Girls” has been courageous enough to share her own struggles in this post. You can also visit Diane’s amazing blog and read the orginal article here

 “It is all very well for those who are in robust health and full of spirits to blame those whose lives are sicklied or covered with the pale cast of melancholy, but the [malady] is as real as a gaping wound, and all the more hard to bear because it lies so much in the region of the soul that to the inexperienced it appears to be a mere matter of fancy and diseased imagination.   Reader, never ridicule the nervous and hypochondrichal, their pain is real; though much of the [malady] lies in the imagination [thought-processes] it is not imaginery.”  Charles Spurgeon (1)
    The ambulance arrived for the second time in as many weeks marking my third trip to the ER in a month.   This episode was the worst ever lasting several hours.   This time, as our two adult daughters cried quietly in the kitchen, my husband thought he had finally lost me for good and that I was never “coming back”.    This time my cry for help was a thousand times more desperate  as  I begged my husband to call for the ambulance again  with a voice that had strangely taken on what sounded like an East European accent .    I was numb on one side of my body, I could not stand up  and I  thought my brain would implode.   I had been shaking uncontrollably now for hours with my teeth chattering so hard I thought surely they would break.    The terms fear or panic were horribly lacking descriptions for what I was now experiencing.
    When the paramedics arrived they took one look at the line-up of  new medications I had just started taking and they said this unusual set of symptoms was a  potential side effect of Paxil.   On the last trip to the ER  I was  diagnosed with panic disorder of unknown origin and  was referred to a cardiologist  which I was seeing,  and to a psychiatrist which  I refused to see.    
   I had begun having panic attacks off and on decades earlier that started after the birth of my second child in the late 1970’s.   Little was known about it back then and I had never heard of anyone experiencing anything like this before but by God’s grace I was able to talk and pray myself through these less severe  episodes that lasted only 5-15-minutes.    Back then they made me a feel like the world around me was surreal and I was  disconnected from my body.   My heart felt like it would pound right out of my chest and I  thought for sure something catastrophic was about to happen.    For some reason it happened most often when I was standing in line at the grocery store.   Once  I figured out that these scary events  weren’t going to kill me and that they  would soon  pass   I learned to just  pray,  try to relax and ride it out.     I stubbornly refused to allow these disconcerting sensations to prevent me from living normally.   
    In 1986 I became extremely ill with what was then called “Chronic Epstein-Barr Virus Syndrome” now called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.    My life radically changed overnight as   one day I was a busy mother of 3 who was very active at church and the next I was unable to even lift my head off the pillow.    I remained bedridden for the better part of each day for the next 3 years.      This  devastating  illness  that includes a whole constellation of  symptoms  set off a deep and abiding depression that was accompanied with more panic attacks and a general form of anxiety.  Medication was an absolute necessity for a period of time.      As never before  I clung to the promises of God.     My brain felt like it was wrapped in gauze  and all I could read were  the Psalms which brought me  much comfort .   Psalm 27:13-14  was  my saving grace during those difficult years:
“I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord  In the land of the living.  Wait for the Lord; Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the Lord.”
 Dr. David Murray who is the professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary has written one of the most well balanced and encouraging books I’ve read on the subject of depression and anxiety called  “Christians Get Depressed Too”.   He quotes Steve Bloem saying:
“The Psalms treat depression more realistically than many of today’s popular books on Christianity and psychology.   David and other psalmists often found themselves deeply depressed for various reasons.   They did not, however apologize for what they were feeling, nor did they confess it as sin.   It was a legitimate part of their relationship with God.   They interacted with Him in the context of their depression.”(2)
     It took nearly 10 years to “recover” from  CFS  although  I still have very  low stamina and  must pace myself carefully to avoid minor relapses.
    After enjoying a few years of better health I went in for a flu and pneumonia shot.    Within minutes of leaving the doctor’s office I began experiencing a panic attack like none I had ever had in the past.   I nearly fainted behind the wheel and barely made it back to the doctor’s office to be monitored.     It passed after an hour but another one hit with a vengeance two days later.    This was the first trip to the Emergency Room.    The doctors concluded that with my history of CFS, which some researchers suspect may be an autoimmune condition, I was unable to take immunizations and my autonomic nervous system had reacted to them.     Then two more episodes came within a month, each worse than the last,  sending me again to the ER.     Shortly afterwards I was diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid disease called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.    I had been treated for  hypothyroidism in high school but had let the treatment fall by the wayside.    Thyroid diseases are notorious for wreaking havoc by causing both depression and anxiety states. 
     So the fight was on as  my journey continued  with this  unwelcome guest  who  ramped it  up to a  new level after these three major episodes.    I spent nearly a month in bed as I worked with my cardiologist to get on the right combination of heart and anxiety medication.    After I  had improved  significantly I came to his office and looking at me  he shook his head  and said “I have never seen anything like this before”.      Since I refused to go to a psychiatrist I  read voraciously everything I could find on anxiety disorders  from both the Christian and secular perspectives.   I was desperate to get help so I created  my own “program”  borrowing from some of  the common sense techniques used in cognitive behavioral  therapy along with counseling myself through the Scriptures.   The Lord was my portion and He sustained me through those dark days.    Now, 13 years later,  I do well most of the time and remain on a small daily dose of Xanax, beta blockers, and thyroid replacement medications.    Because my thyroid disease is progressive, and other hormones  can get out of whack,  I do have occasional spells of  added anxiety.   Other illnesses such as vertigo  or the flu can also trigger symptoms.  
 The Downside of Nouthetic Counseling
     As if dealing with a disabling form of panic disorder isn’t difficult enough for a Christian who desires more than anything in the world to live obediently and abundantly  in Christ,  along come Job’s friends in the Nouthetic Counseling Movement.   Now before you jump all over me, please  let me explain something.     When Robert and I were in Bible college in the 1970’s,  I took Biblical counseling courses and studied the works of Jay Adams.   I LOVED and still do,  this brother’s rejection of many of  the ridiculous ideas introduced by modern psychology.  I also love the fact that his thrust in counseling, as it SHOULD be is that the  word of God is absolutely sufficient.   Jay Adams’ counseling approach is wonderful  in so far as it deals with depression and anxiety that is truly caused by sinful thinking and habits.  
“His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” 
 2 Peter 1:3 
    But his  dismissal of organic causes that are beyond any control of the sufferer has done much harm to those of us who have suffered from biologically based anxiety and depression and I have both witnessed this and experienced this firsthand.
    Little did I know that long before I developed my own  form of “mental illness” (Yikes!  I just hate calling it THAT!)   God would be softening the blow for me by preparing me ahead of time through our first full-time ministry.    After college Robert became the senior pastor and director of an inner city mission church where we worked with a large number of dear people, many who were true Christians, who were REALLY hurting mentally.   In our little congregation of under 100 there were 12 diagnosed schizophrenics and throughout the course of our various ministries God has sent us many people with big problems.    We learned early on in ministry that not all cases of mental and emotional problems were caused by a person’s personal sin and that medication is sometimes necessary.    I have made the  simple observation that a pill can never cure  a personal sin problem therefore,  if medication does work and the believer is walking with Christ in obedience then it’s obvious where the problem lies.    Tragically, two dear Christian friends of ours who wanted to please the Lord but were delusional committed suicide after going off their medications when someone had told them that taking medication for mental problems instead of trusting God was wrong.      
    When I hear well meaning Christians making  blanket statements that  there is really no such thing as  “clinical” anxiety, panic disorders, or depression and that  those conditions  are  a direct result of sinful thinking and habits  it grieves me deeply because that kind of armchair doctoring  is not only hurtful but it is  potentially dangerous.  
““John Lockley writes: “Being depressed is bad enough in itself, but being a depressed Christian is worse.   And being a depressed Christian in a church full of people who do not understand depression is like a little taste of hell”.  
  There is a terrible stigma attached to depression. [and anxiety! – emphasis mine] This is the result of widespread misunderstanding about its causes, its symptoms, and the cures available.   Some of the misunderstanding is understandable.  Unlike cancer, heart disease, or arthritis, there is no scan or test that can visibly demonstrate the existence of depression-anxiety.   It is a largely “invisible” disease.   We want to be able to point to something and say  “there’s the problem!”  When we can’t we often wrongly conclude that there is no problem.  Or, if we are Christians, we may often wrongly conclude that our spiritual life is the problem””  ~ Dr. David Murray ( 3)
“There are three simplistic extremes that we should avoid when considering the cause of depression:  first, that it is all physical; second, that it is all spiritual; third that it is all mental.”  (4)
    Here’s the rub of all of this for me.  Not all anxiety and depression is caused from a physical problem.   And even when it  DOES start with a biological base it can quickly unite with sinful thinking because we are fallen creatures.   We get sick.   We sin.   When we get sick with something that impacts our thought  process in such a powerful way  it is easy for  sinful thinking to take over  and catapult anxiety to  Olympic proportions .
     Here’s an example of  how that  has worked in my personal experience.
   I’m having a bout with a very  bad panic attack that was triggered by a nasty attack of vertigo. (and this particular attack lasted 6 hours!)     The room is spinning – I’m barfing – I’m shaking – my teeth are chattering, and I’m begging God to make it go away.    (BTW – some researchers have documented actual seizure like activity in the brain during such episodes and I can believe it!   This type of thing is completely beyond my control.)    Anyway,  my doctor tells me to take extra  Xanax which I  finally manage to hold down without throwing up.      Afterwards, I’m totally exhausted and I start to worry and  contemplate the what-ifs.   [enter sinful thinking]  ie:  What if I  have a brain tumor causing the vertigo.   Then  I begin to spiral deeper into my worry.   How can I pay for the tests without insurance?   What will happen to my husband if I die?  Before you know it I’m making my own funeral arrangements in my head!    This is the type of anxiety (worry)  that  Jesus tells us NOT to do!  This kind of anxiety can take on a life of its own until I can actually bring on a panic attack because of it.     But this panic attack is of a different nature than the first one.   This panic attack I am actually able to get a grip on by breathing steadily, and taking to myself.   I start recalling Scriptures about being anxious, and remembering  God’s loving care of me.    I ask for His  help and   forgiveness for not trusting Him with my life and circumstances.  I ask him to replace my wayward thoughts with praises and peace.  I calm down.   
   For the believer walking with Christ who struggles with biologically based depression or anxiety the battle is arduous and frustrating.    We have to fight harder than the average bear to maintain peace of heart and  mind.    What we don’t need are people  telling us we are in sin or lack faith.   I can only speak for myself, but my heart is usually the first thing  I examine when I’m having  a mental-emotional crises. 
      I leave you with these words from Dr. Murray:
““The Puritans were incomparable experts in soul care.   But even they were well aware of the possibility of depression being caused by brain malfunction.   William Perkins spent hours counseling people every week and distinguished between melancholy with a physical cause requiring medicine, and conviction of sin, which had a spiritual cause and required the blood of Christ:  “Sorrow, that comes by melancholy ariseth only of that humour [sickness] annoying the bodies:  but the other sorrow, ariseth of a man’s sins, for which his conscience accuses him.   Melancholy may be cured by physicke [medicine]: this sorrow cannot be cured by anthing but the blood of Christ….”
    All this reminds us that the prescription of solutions is often a matter that takes much time, and even trial and error.   There are usually no quick fixes.   For Christians there will often need to be a balance between medicines for the brain, rest for the body, counsel for the mind, and spiritual encouragement for the soul.    Recovery will usually take patient perseverance over a period of many months, and in some cases, even years.
Therefore, great care is required in coming to conclusions about our own condition or that of others.  It is important to remember the two main principles that govern our understanding of depression:    Avoid dogmatism and seek humility.   Avoid extremes and seek balance.””  (5)  
(1)   The Treasury of David,  Charles Spurgeon:  3 vols.  (Newark, Del: Cornerston, 1869)  2.132
 (2)  Steve and Robyn Bloem, Broken Minds (Grand Rapids; Kregle, 2005). 204
(3)  “Christians Get Depressed Too” by Dr. David Murray Reformation Heritage Books (2010) Kindle Edition
(4)   Ibid; Kindle Edition
(5)   Ibid; Kindle Edition

DISCLAIMER:  This is my personal story and is in no way intended to advise anyone concerning diagnosis or treatment of any problem.   Because I chose not to see a psychiatrist to treat my problem does not mean that I would advise anyone else that way.   God gives us doctors to help and to heal. 


1 Comment

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One response to “When “Anxiety” Is Not A Sin – My Journey Through the Labyrinth Of Panic Disorder

  1. Jessica Garcia

    This is the most well thought out, researched and written article on this topic. I suffer from Major Depressive Disorder and PTSD that has spiraled out of control after my sister’s passing by suicide. I am most grateful for your very wise and compassionate posting. Your analysis that there is a difference between biological disorders and the sinful and that they can sometimes complicate one another is truly God sent. I live this everyday and I have found your post very helpful. I found this blog while researching after hearing a very saddening sermon on how all anxiety is sinful. I admire those who dedicate their lives to pastor others and pray that we increase the knowledge base in our Christian communitites to allow compassion and understanding to help one another instead of hurting one another. I am sorry for the loss of your friends to suicide and pray your condition may be healed/controlled. You are a blessing to many! Your sister in Christ.

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