My life with anxiety and panic (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 1)

13 Apr

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A week before my sabbatical began, we went to see Star Wars.  It has become a family tradition these past three years.  My dad’s birthday is December 29th, and so he takes my brother, sister, me and our kids to see the movie together.  There were 14-15 of us this year!  I love being with my family, and I was so excited for the movie.  I love Star Wars.  Finally we were going to learn more about Luke Skywalker, and the movie was directed by a guy whose previous work I really like.  It was going to be great.

Except that it didn’t turn out great.  I’m not referring to the movie.  The movie was awesome.  I’m talking about me.  Halfway through the movie, sitting between my dad and sister, I started feeling feverish, shaking and sweating profusely.  I wondered to myself if my dad and sister could notice.  I really hoped they did not notice.  I was dripping sweat, feeling like I could vomit.  I didn’t want them to know.

After 10-15 minutes of this, I got up and walked out to use the restroom, wipe my face, and get a drink.  It helped, but back in my seat, I started shaking and sweating again, and couldn’t focus on the movie. I closed my eyes and tried breathing slowly.  I had grabbed some paper towels in the bathroom, so that helped with the sweating.  I don’t think I fully stopped shaking until hours later at home.

Was it the flu?  A fever?  Nope.

It was anxiety, panic.  Along with the physical symptoms I described, there was a swirling spiral of negative thoughts:  “Something is deeply wrong with me.  Am I about to have a heart attack?  Is this it? Am I going to die?”

If you’re thinking, “What in the world is he talking about?,” let me explain.  I am telling you that I struggle with anxiety and stress, and sometimes it results in panic attacks.  I have mentioned it only the slightest bit over the last few years.  Just a hint in a sermon or two.  But today I am telling the whole story.  Anxiety has been a very real part of my life since the summer of 2015. I’m telling you about it today because anxiety was the defining feature of my first month of sabbatical. I felt it was time to talk about it.

It is one of those parts of life that I am never quite sure if and when and how to talk about it.  It’s deeply personal, and Michelle and I have had to give a lot of thought and prayer into when would be the right time.  From the beginning of my struggle in 2015 I made our church leaders aware, as well as some close friends and long-term confidantes.  But quite frankly we weren’t sure how to talk about it in a public way because my anxiety stems from my role as pastor.  I don’t want to come across as accusatory to the church.  I also don’t want to come across as trying to start a pity party or a “poor me” article.  Michelle and I knew what we signed up for.  Pastoral ministry is fraught with intense situations, and often ones in which the pastor and his family are in the cross-hairs. I found the following stats:

  • 75% of pastors report being extremely or highly stressed.
  • 90% are fatigued and worn out every week
  • 50% report having a serious conflict with a parishioner every month
  • 80% will not be in ministry after 10 years
  • 70% are constantly fighting depression

We also get to experience many joys in being a pastor, pastor’s wife, and pastoral family.  It is a unique role, where you are uniquely involved in people’s lives.  The joy, the happiness, and brokenness, the pain.  All of it.

So in order to avoid coming across as accusatory or like I wanted a pity party, we felt it best not to share publicly.  Until now.  We decided that now is the time to share this for a few reasons. First, I hope I have communicated clearly enough that you already know that I am not perfect, but we felt it was time for you to know this particular struggle. Pastors are people too. Second, for those of you who also struggle with mental illness, with stress, anxiety, depression, and the like, we want you to know that there is hope!

So let’s go back a few years.  Really I need to go back a lot further than that.  Anxiousness and worry is a bit of a family trait.  I come by it somewhat genetically, and I’ve always, from a little child, had struggles with worrying, people-pleasing, perfectionism, and such.  If a relationship in my life was not going well, I took it hard.  In the first half of 2015 there were multiple very difficult multiple-year situations in the church that came to a head.  Our Leadership Team handled them with grace and truth and was amazing, and by June 2015 those situations were resolved.

Then there was the trip to Kenya, which was wonderful.  But as leader, I carried the weight of responsibility, and nearing the end of the trip, as we rode in the bus from Kijabe where Lamar & Janice live and work, headed to the capital city of Nairobi, I had a brief and less intense attack.  I had no idea what was going on, and figured it was motion sickness, or something with altitude change.

In the two weeks after the Kenya trip, I spent loads of time and energy trying to complete all the loan paperwork to get our eldest son money to go to college, another loan for a laptop, and my stress levels had only increased.  One morning, after working out, I dropped our middle son off at soccer practice, and started having pains in my chest.

That did me in.  Pretty much from that day mid-August 2015 for the following two months, I went through a nonstop stress-induced agony.  I couldn’t stop shaking, and I had tightness and pain in my chest.  The chest pains scared me, and the fear kicked off even more anxiety.  It was a vicious cycle.  I saw my doctor, and he ordered tests.  A plethora of medical tests all came up clear.  My doctor also prescribed Xanax, and it was a bit helpful, but the anxiety continued.

After a few weeks, my doc suggested a maintenance med for anxiety, Lexapro.  I started on it, and initially things got worse.  Lexapro caused was a weird burning sensation in my thigh.  I couldn’t sleep for the better part of three nights.  It was one of the worst experiences of my life.  I called the doc in a panic. He said press on, my body was just get used to the medication.  I had started counseling with my seminary prof, and I’ll never forget that first session when I was a mess, crying in his office.

But slowly my body got used to the Lexapro, and little by little, week by week, my anxiety subsided.  I could sleep again.  From time to time the pains continued, and they would get me scared.  I learned to fight those fears.  My heart was fine. The medical tests proved I was fine.  I was just stressed out.  Very stressed out.  And that wasn’t good.

So I continued counseling which was amazing. I learned so much.  I went back to working out after taking a month off.  I started reading books my counselor recommended to learn coping techniques.

Over the next 18 months I improved enough that in the Spring of 2017 I saw my doc again, and we agreed that I could go off Lexapro.  I started doing a gradual draw-down, and by summer I finished taking medication.  But really, while on the meds I had hardly any side effects.  So I want you to hear me clearly on this: for those struggling with mental illness, meds can be a lifesaver.  They were for me, and I would go back on them if needed.

Back to December 2017 at Penn Cinema, watching Star Wars.  That panic attack was a bit of shocker.  It wasn’t the first.  I’ve had a handful of them.  Though it was the strongest one since the initial instances in the summer of 2015.  I doubt it will be the last one.  I’ve learned I can’t totally predict when I will have an anxiety attack. And yet, that is not totally true. If I’m willing to give it some thought, I can read the signs.  For example, in the last month before sabbatical, I had a number of stressors.  Prep for sabbatical was the big one.  I wanted sabbatical to go really well for Faith Church.  So I was nervous about going on sabbatical.  That was on top of the regular, day in and day stressors of what being a pastor entails.

Take the intensity of Star Wars, combined with my excitement about it, laid on top of those work stressors, and there you have the warning signs.  That said, it doesn’t fully make sense to me why an anxiety attack would hit right then.  And it makes me angry because it ruined the movie.   But, one thing I have learned is that when the anxiety comes out it is rarely about what is actually happening when it appears. It has been building, and I have not been pausing and working through stress as it occurs, and then it just erupts. My body is saying to me “enough!”

A few days after the movie, sabbatical started. As I read through my sabbatical journal this in preparation for this sermon, I was blown away by how much I mentioned stress and anxiety throughout the month of January.  If you thought that I went on sabbatical January 1st and was able to have a sigh of relief and peace, you were wrong.  My stress and anxiety got worse when sabbatical started.

Here is what I wrote on January 14th: “I have no reason to feel anxiety, stress, shaking, nervousness.  And yet it is there.  I don’t know what it is like for a person going through withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.  But I’ve seen the dramatic depictions on TV or movies, and I’ve read accounts in books.  No doubt those are different kinds of withdrawal than what I am experiencing.  But I feel something similar.”

I didn’t have another panic attack during those first two weeks, but I had a heightened level of anxiety and stress, a shakiness and nervousness that lingered pretty much the whole time.  And then something eye-opening happened.

We had our small group on Friday January 12.  I felt anxiety most of the day Friday, but as our friends walked in the house, and we sat around our table, the anxiety and tightness in my chest and arm all but dissipated.  Inwardly I recognized it right away and thought, “Woah…what just happened?” You might think it was good that I found peace, and it was.  But to have two straight weeks of stress and anxiousness, and then in a matter of minutes have it be gone?  It was weird.  What was happening to me?

The thought came to mind that in those first few weeks of sabbatical I had been experiencing symptoms of withdrawal.  Actual physical symptoms of withdrawal.  Like I was in a kind of detox.  It was so interesting that my symptoms just about disappeared during Care Group.  Why?

I think it is a combination of things.  First, I think Care Group was a distraction from my thoughts, from being with myself.  During Care Group I am focused on other people, on the conversation, on the study.  And that is okay.  Those are good things. I don’t think all distractions are bad.  And it might not even be fair to call it a distraction.  Care Group is an activity that is healthy.

Second, it could be that Care Group was a brief return to my “job”.  Like a drug addict getting a fix.  It was eerie how fast it happened that night.

What was going on inside me during those first few weeks?  I call it “feeling stressy” or “anxious”, but it is not just a typical kind of feeling stress on anxiety.  Instead it is the downward spiral of thoughts that gets worse and worse.  In the two weeks prior I had allowed too much self-focus can turn to wallowing. It’s good to know what’s going on in my life, but not healthy to be so self-focused.  Care Group, in part, turned my thoughts outward.

Care Group didn’t cure me.  The stress came right back the next day.  As the month of January went on, I had much time to reflect on my anxiety.  What I have learned is that I have situational anxiety.  Meaning, if I have nothing stressful going on in my life, I generally feel at peace.  But if I have stress going on, my body now reacts, and quickly.

The point, then, is learning how to deal with stress in a way that is faithful to God.  There are many ways to deal with stress.  Not all of them are faithful.  Our world is full of unhealthy and sometimes destructive ways to cope with stress and anxiety.  You and I know them and can list them.

For me, I would often distract myself with my phone.  Social media.  Games.  I started sabbatical, though, knowing I needed to bring my struggle with anxiety before God in a new way.   Looking back over the last few years, I can see an arc of progress, healing and hope.  But I also knew that things could be way better.

So on January 1st, I got rid of all the games, and I deactivated my Facebook account.  I had no sermon to write, no meetings, no emails, no visits, no phone calls, no office to get away to.  I had nothing distracting me.  For the first time in a long time, I was alone with myself, my family and God, and my stress.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have had a practice of personal devotions, studying scripture, and spending time in prayer.  So why did experience God in a new way during sabbatical?  What was new was that everything else I was using to distract myself from stress and anxiety was gone.  I was feeling it all the time, and that intensified the battle in my mind.  So I started reading and practicing new prayer disciplines.  Trying to sit more in God’s presence and listen.  A friend from church gave me the book Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An anxious evangelical finds peace with God through contemplative prayer, which gave some very solid advice.  I read The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a world of Distraction, which was so helpful.

Then at on my first three-day personal retreat Twin Pines I had the first deep opportunity to learn and practice the presence of God in a more sustained way.  That retreat was at the end of the first month of sabbatical, and it was the turning point.  I could literally feel the stress subside as I turned the corner and drove onto Twin Pine’s campus.  I realized I should have been doing personal retreats with God for years.  I had talked about doing them, and I never did.

As a result, I can tell you that the second and third months of sabbatical were very different from the first.

Consider with me Philippians 4:6-7 where Paul says “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

You read a verse like that and it is easy to think that anxiety is wrong.  Sinful.  Did Paul mean that true Christians won’t struggle with anxiety?  And if we do struggle with anxiety then are we bad followers of Jesus who don’t trust in him?  What Christian hasn’t had at least a little bit of anxiety, stress, worry?  Maybe the rare person?

For many years I had a mindset that Christians should not struggle with anxiety to the point of taking meds or seeing a counselor.  There is within Christian circles an unwritten expectation that we have to put on a smile and give a false expression that things are okay.  No doubt, as Christians we are called to rejoice, be joyful, glad.  But does that mean we should never feel anxiety?

There have been Christians through the ages that have committed the heresy of docetism, denying the humanity of Christ, saying that his perfection meant that that he didn’t feel pain, didn’t have stress or anxiety.  That is heresy.

Consider Hebrews 2:14-17 which teaches that Jesus “…shared in [our] humanity…” and that “he had to be made like [us], fully human in every way…” and that “[b]ecause he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

I would submit to you that that was one reason Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane right before he was arrested was purposefully included in the Bible to show us in very clear terms that he too went through anxiety and stress.

Philippians 4:6-7 doesn’t mean, therefore, that the presence of anxiety and stress and worry in your life means that you are sinful.  Jesus had it in his life too.  We certainly saw him frustrated with people and showing that emotion, and stress usually comes with frustration. Instead Philippians 4:6-7 is a wonderful teaching for those in the middle of anxiety, that there is hope, that we can do something about it.  We should take our concerns to the Lord, with thanksgiving, and seek him for peace.

Peter says something very similar in 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast your cares on him, because he cares for you.”

When you lose a loved one, for example, you will still feel grief and anxiety. It doesn’t mean that you are not a true Christian or a spiritual person.  Take your situation to the Lord and seek peace in him.

Another wonderful teaching is James 1 which says, “consider it joy when you face trials of many kinds”.  Consider it joy?  I hate hard times.  I want them to stop.  Why would I ever consider them joy?  Well, James is saying, in other words, use your mind to control your emotions.  That is nearly identical to a therapeutic method called CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Basically it can be summarized as “Tell yourself the truth.”

That one is hard for me.  Anxiety is a battle in my mind.  Just ask Michelle; she’s needed to be a teller of truth in this area to me for most of our marriage, and certainly for our 15 years here at Faith Church. I have learned, though, that telling ourselves the truth is possible.

Psalm 46:10 is another classic reminder of how to tell ourselves the truth: “Be still and know that I am God.” The psalmist tells us that we can trust in God.  Sometimes we just need to stop what we are doing and reflect on that.  In the midst of stress and anxiety, we tend to be very frantic and forgetful of reality.  But to be still means that we need to sit with God.  It takes time, it takes effort and it takes work to bestill before God and to tell ourselves the truth of who he is and what he has done.

In conclusion, let me say that I am not perfect.  I am not healed.

Sabbatical didn’t cure me.  That wasn’t the purpose of sabbatical.  But I do think I learned a lot.  In particular that I need to “be still and know that God is God” on a regular basis.  I need to get away and spend time with God.  My two personal retreats at Twin Pines were so good.  For years I said that I needed to do that, but never took it seriously.  Now I plan to take a personal retreat at Twin Pines every six months.

I also learned that I need to practice prayer disciplines of sitting before God daily, still, quiet, listening.  I certainly was a pastor who prayed.  But I need to become a pastor, a person, who is praying differently. For sabbatical I got rid of all social media and games on my phone to rid myself of those distractions.  I am committed to not bringing them back, and to replacing that time with more prayer, especially listening prayer.

Another helpful practice is to learn about anxiety. I started reading the book The End of Worry, and I encourage you to do the same.  Learn about stress and anxiety.  There is nothing to be ashamed of.

Also, exercise!  God made us to move!  And when we move, it has scientifically proven emotional benefits.

Finally, if you are feeling like you are losing the battle with anxiety and stress, please talk it over with your doctor, about the possibility of medicine as part of the solution.   Get in touch with professional counselors.  Some of you may need to change your view on the importance of medicine and counseling.  And, sit with our God.  Sit with Jesus.  Learn to rest in Him in a new way.

So, I am back…and there will be and there will be more difficult and stressful situations, as ministry is hard. But I feel excited about what God has taught me about this battle and I am excited to jump back in with these new habits and lessons He has graciously taught me. Thus I invite you to join me in addressing stress and anxiety in your life.

2 Responses to “My life with anxiety and panic (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 1)”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How Distracted I Was From God (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 2) | Let's Talk About Sunday - April 19, 2018

    […] Last week I told you how the first trend in my sabbatical was the month of January as filled with comments about stress and anxiety.  The second thing that filled that first month was commentary about […]

  2. We really need grace | Let's Talk About Sunday - May 17, 2018

    […] you feel like life is anything but firm, I get it.  I talked about my own struggles with anxiety a few weeks ago.  When anxiety hits, when stress rises, when life gets complicated and difficult, […]

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