When Your Enemy Really Is “All In Your Mind”

I was talking to God last night. As you do. Well, as I do. So do some of my clients (I’m a mental health support worker) but that’s another story. Actually, it could be the same story. But I digress. Last night, I was talking to God about my anxiety. Come to think of it, some of my clients were probably doing that as well. I’d best get past this part, or we may never get anywhere.

A few years ago, whilst I was preparing a lesson plan for my job one morning, I had this weird feeling come over me. I felt like I’d had about four cups of coffee, and at the same time I wanted to lay down and go into a nice, comfortable coma. Very strange, and scary. I thought maybe I was having a heart attack. I didn’t work that day, and instead went home and got into bed and stayed there all day, only getting out when my husband came home to take me to a doctor. When he came into the bedroom, I tried to explain how I was feeling. “It’s like I’m…I’m….I’m….” Ben looked at me with this terrified, sympathetic expression, and I must have looked pretty bad because he finished my sentence by adding “Broken?”. Broken. That described it exactly.

At the doctors, I was promptly diagnosed with having had an anxiety attack. For no apparent reason. I hadn’t been anxious when it happened – I was using a photocopier. The doctor managed to establish that my anxiety attack may have been a delayed physiological response to a traumatic or anxiety inducing event that may have recently happened. “Oh, well that explains everything.” I said.

Three days prior, my husband and I had finally established that he was, in fact, a chronic alcoholic.

Yep. That’d do it.

Since that time, Ben and I have been to hell and back dealing with not only his alcoholism, but the concentric legacy of it, and my responses to it, felt by us and the whole family. One of those lasting effects has been the intense, physical anxiety attacks, often felt as panic, which I have experienced intermittently since the day I had that first attack. It’s weird, because I’ve always been one of those people who react instinctively in a crisis, responding quickly and decisively to threatening situations and accidents. I still am. The anxiety attacks are not triggered by immediate threats, or by real dangers or by surprises. They are seething, creeping things that advance slowly and without warning, in seemingly benign circumstances. They feel like I believe a tsunami happens; a huge, slow suck back as my energy drains from me, followed by a trickle, a flow, then a surge of adrenalin and energy which then rolls over me in wave after wave, flattening my emotions, my intellect and my physical strength with quivering, chattering, uncontrollable, surging power. Fear. Panic. Flight, without the fight.

Horrible stuff.

They happen most predictably at the cinema. I hate the movies. I want to see the film, but the thought of all those people milling around in the lobby with the unspoken yet universal desire of getting the best possible seats in the same theatre as I want to go to, combined with the unallocated seating, sends me into a panic. Literally. The first time a panic attack hit me at the cinema, my daughter and I had gone to see the new Batman movie a week after it was released, on a Friday night. We arrived, and found the multiplex cinema lobby full of people all queueing to see the same film. I felt like a Christian just been thrown to the lions. By the time Daisy realised I’d run from the place, I was already at the car, gasping and clawing at the door handle. The second time it happened, we had gone to a small theatre to see a movie that had been out for a month, thinking perhaps there would only be a few people there. However, that evening happened to be the night that the president of the local football club decided to shout every player from every age grade a night at the movies. They didn’t tell the cinema they were coming. They all bought their tickets individually – all fifty or so of them – and the cinema only had one cash register, and no EFTPOS. We got there before the club arrived, and lined up behind three innocent looking teenagers, who kept letting their friends in front of us, and by the time the coach, the president and the board of the club arrived, they simply presumed that the swelling group at the front of the queue had some kind of arrangement with the ticket office. After twenty five minutes of waiting for the whole football club to buy their ticket each, plus their popcorn and their coke, all one by one, it looked like we might not get tickets at all, or get to see the movie start on time. It was like my worst nightmare. I was out of my mind, babbling like a maniac, when in a moment of clarity I broke from the line and made a run for the door, Ben and Daisy at my heels. I insisted on driving home just to get some semblance of feeling of control, otherwise by the time we got home I may have already thrown myself from the moving vehicle and into traffic. Naked.

I think I’ve mentioned in a previous post how I almost had to be sedated when we tried to see Avatar with Ben’s sister and brother-in-law and our children on Boxing Day a couple of years ago. We even bought tickets in advance online to help allay my anxiety, but we still had to line up to get them. Doh! We then got separated in the queue from the teenagers when they saw some friends, and is was about then I felt like I needed to breathe with the aid of a brown paper bag. When we got in, after thirty painful minutes of queuing ten deep, the cinema was already three-quarters full, and some of us had to sit two rows away with strangers. I was speaking in tongues under my breath, and I was not praying. I sincerely thought I was having a heart attack. Ridiculous, because if someone there had had an actual heart attack, I would’ve been able to set up a cordon, perform CPR and direct the paramedics to the correct aisle and seat even in the dark via text message, because I’m great in a crisis. Unless it’s my own, and it happens in a movie theatre.

I get anxiety attacks other times too, and they always seem to be related to my children. I think about things happening to them, and I almost freak out. A few weeks ago, when my youngest son had to catch the bus home for the first time (we just moved from a country town to a big city) and I couldn’t reach him on his mobile phone, I thought I was going to physically expire from panic right there at my desk at work, and it was only my second day on the job. My head was spinning, my chest was hurting, my mind was racing with thoughts of some weirdo trying to coerce my boy into his filthy panel van, and I couldn’t breathe. I was hyperventilating, clutching my chest, choking. I wondered how I would explain to my boss how I, their brand new mental health support worker, was having a panic attack at my desk on just my second day at work, and thus would have to go home immediately to make sure my ten year old son hadn’t been abducted, because if I didn’t, I would not be able to work. Or remain conscious. Just then, my phone blipped. “Hi,” texts my son “My phone was in my bag. Whats up?” I had to lay on the floor for spell. It was exhausting.

It still happens from time to time. Even though I know theatres and threats against my kids are my most common triggers, I don’t really understand why they happen. I’m a fairly robust personality, pretty tough, and I know how to stick up for myself. But this is something else. This is like sabotage, like being attacked from the inside. It’s uncomfortable, it’s frightening and it’s uncontrollable. I can be sitting there, telling myself the fear is irrational, telling myself  that I am not in danger, telling myself that everything is okay and I am safe, and while I am doing so my body and my mind are screaming “You are dying. Death is near. You will not be able to survive this. This is the end. This feeling will go on and on forever and then you will be dead, and it will happen soon, and everyone and everything you love will be dead too. And you can’t stop this from happening.”

It’s really, really awful.

I don’t take medication any more, although the first time it happened the doctor gave me some pills that made me feel sad and heavy all the time, so I stopped taking them. Funny, because the people I work with every day seem to feel sad and heavy quite a bit, and I guess I’ve put it down to their illnesses, but perhaps it isn’t after all.

So anyway, I’ve been talking to God about this, and this was His answer to me.

“So, Jo, you know the anxiety is in your mind. That isn’t to say because it’s in your mind it isn’t real. It’s real.

You can be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Your mind is like a vine; a growing, living, moving thing. It’s always putting out new shoots and turning those into branches. Some branches grow fruit, good thoughts, and some don’t. Sometimes, the branches that don’t bear fruit are not much good for anything. They get in the way, and sometimes they make trouble. Sometimes those branches need to go, because they cause the vine too much trouble, and they take resources from the fruiting branches.

When you want a vine to put out new shoots, you prune it back. You take off the branches that are not useful or conducive to the health of the vine. Sometimes you take all the branches away. Sometimes you pinch out the new growth to encourage more growth overall. They key is not to allow unhindered, perpetual growth of any kind, good or bad.

A few years ago you had a trauma which caused you to grow some strategies to cope quickly. They helped you deal with an emergency situation (finding out Ben was an alcoholic) but what you had to grow to cope initially wasn’t healthy growth. It was needed only for the short term, and soon, it began to damage you. And it didn’t get pruned away, pinched off, cut down. It kept growing. And now that part of your mind, that growth, gives you trouble.

I’ll prune this growth over time, and you will heal. However, what you can do is dress the vine of your thoughts and your mind as you journey along. From time to time, make a point of pruning back your thoughts to the very stump. Don’t rely on your branches to help you cope, to teach you, to support you, to nourish you. Rely on your roots instead.”

I share this at the risk of those who read it thinking I am quite insane. I mean, talking to God, for goodness sake, about dressing vines and pruning my mind. But it helps me, I can tell you, and I’m not too proud to admit I need help. From God. He knows what He’s talking about, I find. And He always helps me out when I ask Him for His help.

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7 Replies

  • I love this analogy of the vine and the mind Jo. My husband has Parkinsons and one of his major symptoms is panic attacks. These attacks are totally physiological and related to the dopamine balance in his brain, but there is a layer of psychological input that I’m sure this analogy will help. So thanks again for a great post Jo.

    The tsunami of panic is often so overwhelming that those of us who stand by and ache for our loved ones are also at times knocked over by its ferocity. I made an unprecedented decision to vote for the Liberal Party last election (for the first time in 40 years) because I felt their mental health policy was the only policy in the whole campaign from all parties that impressed me. I was very sad that they didn’t make it because their policy could not be implemented. Now perhaps the Labor Party will do something anyway – time will tell. But I pray (yep, I do a lot of chatting with Him too) you experience God’s overwhelming strength and presence as you seek to help those you meet in your work and for your own personal battles.

  • Your raw exposure compells trust. You have this gift of living from the inside out. This places you as a signpost mapping out the terrain for others ultimately leading them to Him. Standing naked allows God to place you at the coal front as it requires courage, honesty and humility that few have. Stand tall Jo and point the way. And as Leslie says, these attacks are most commonly derived from physical stress from disease exaserbated by outside triggers, manisfested in a body when resting. I know the price you pay.

  • Beautifully written, Jo. What a powerful analogy of the vine.

    I had increasing anxiety a few years ago – over a very real and growing threat and harm to my children that I could do nothing about. And God wasn’t doing any of the things that I thought He needed to be doing about it either. For most of my life He has been my very present help in times of trouble, comforting and leading me, but at the worst, most despirate moments He has appeared to be strangely absent … but I, too digress.

    I was playing a very full-on game of squash – taking out all my hurt and anger on that little black ball in a close match with a player much better and stronger than I. I started having a bit of trouble getting my breath through the game, but considering how I was throwing myself around the court that was not surprising. The match finished. I went home to recover but had more and more trouble breathing. I was gasping for breath but just couldn’t seem to get any oxygen. I was boiling hot and red all over but shiverring with cold and covered in goosebumps at the same time. My body seemed convinced that it was dying and I would never be able to get the air I needed to live – it was really scary. Somehow in all of that a warm bath sounded like a good idea and my husband ran it for me. The comfort of that warm water seemed to sooth away all the symptoms and my body gradually calmed and returned to normal, although I remained a bit shaken by the experience.

    When I saw the dr a few days later he confirmed that it had probably been a panic attack but never suggested any medications to deal with such, I probably wouldn’t have taken them anyway. Knowing what it was somehow enabled me to snip it off straight away. The reasons for the anxiety continued to grow and multiply. The heartwrenching pain and grief and fear for my children overwhelmed me an no amount of crying or screaming was sufficient to let out one ounce of the pain. Yet, whenever the first hint of another panic attack came I just rejected it because I didn;t need another one of them on top of everything else and, amazingly, it left.

    Mind you, I have never played squash so hard again … from that time on I’ve always held something in reserve with every subsequent game of squash.

  • THe best book to read on this subject is ” The anxiety cure” by Dr Archibald Hart..it’s brilliant, explains it SO good, really worth reading !!! you can get it from Koorong. …plus a whole lot of God healing !!!!! xoxo

  • This is probably an archived post Jo, but I have to thank you for explaining an anxiety attack so well. And I have them also in crowds/enclosed spaces.
    Earlier this year my husband and I took my son and partner to see a live show a the tennis centre in melbourne. After lining up, and then climbing a million steps to get to our seats, I had to leave. I felt sooo bad and my son’s gorgeous partner gave us her evening to get me home to their place.
    Good to know I’m not really a mad woman…..

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