Heads up, I’m going to be uncomfortably transparent in this post, but I’m doing that because God comforts us in all our troubles, SO THAT we can comfort others in theirs.
Yesterday, I tweeted this…
… and so many people (especially other pastors) reached out to say, “Me too! I thought I was the only one! How did you get out!?” that I wanted to word-vomit my experience. Nearly 8 months ago, I had what I now understand was the first of many anxiety attacks that sent me into a hellish downward spiral. CONFESSION: before this happened to me, when people told me they’d had anxiety attacks, I’d smile, nod, and think, “Oh, they’re dramatizing having a really bad day.” So, here’s what I mean by that…
- Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday on weeks I was preaching for about 6 months I’d have anxiety attacks (indescribable and fixated fear, inability to catch my breath, loss of emotional control, sweating, terrible throat constriction) caused by fear of public speaking. This felt insane because I’ve been preaching weekly for 15 years.
- Between attacks, I spent every second of every day fixated on the fear of melting down onstage the next time I’d have to speak, to the point that I wanted to escape-sleep all day, and couldn’t sleep at night.
- The weight of the constant anxiety would sometimes cause me to break down sobbing for seemingly no reason.
- Eventually, I became convinced that I’d never be happy again, and after about 5 months I legitimately forgot what it was like to be happy.
- In the end, I was diagnosed with acute generalized anxiety disorder and depression
None of this had ever happened to me before this year. FAST FORWARD: a couple months ago I preached my first weekend of messages without even situational medication (more on that in a second), am free from anxiety, and am genuinely enjoying preaching again.
MY EXPERIENCE GETTING OUT
This isn’t to say this will be everyone’s experience, or that these things will help you. I just want to share what God did for me. Here are bullets to keep this as short as possible…
THE #1 THING: Encouragement. Nothing mattered more than this. I found some other pastors who had walked through the same thing and gotten out, called them, and asked a million Q’s. There was a group of ~4 people and my wife, Jana, that were there for me to call at any moment, relentlessly checked on me to see how I was doing, pray for me, and send me encouragement. When I texted this to one of them during an attack right before I drove to church to preach (I warned you I was going to be uncomfortably transparent!)…
… he immediately texted things like this…
Sometimes, I just needed to hear one of them say for the 100th time, “This won’t last forever.” I never, ever would’ve made it without these men.
I said the darkest things in my heart out loud to people who loved me. One counselor explained to me that when someone has anxiety attacks around something specific (like public speaking), there was already a high amount of pressure in other areas of life; public speaking just happened to be where the floor caved in. That was very true for me, and I had to identify it, face what was really going on in my heart, and get honest about things I didn’t want to say to people who loved me. In the span of 6 months…
- I had been preaching 5 services live every Sunday as our church in Nashville was in a season of rapid growth
- We had to process a totally-out-of-nowhere potential calling to a new church
- My best friend had a life-crisis I wanted to walk with well
- We experienced the loss of the church I’d pastored for 10 years, planned to retire at, and that we loved like our own child
- We said 3,500 very emotional goodbyes
- We moved our family 800 miles away to Dallas…
- … which meant I didn’t have a friend within 800 miles
- We started saying 12,000 emotional hellos
- I was feeling the pressure of following a universally-beloved founding pastor that has been at Lake Pointe for 40 years. I was operating in “prove yourself” mode everyday.
- We adopted our 3rd child, Hudson
The Psalm was true: “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away.” I could pretend all day long like everything was awesome, but deep in my heart was a reservoir of buried grief, doubt, anger, and loneliness I had been trying to push down and ignore, and because I wasn’t getting them out in healthy ways, they were coming out sideways as anxiety. Identifying what was really going on my heart and getting it out with other Christians was a HUGE turning point in my battle with anxiety.
Counseling. I saw a panic specialist that helped me understand what was happening in my brain: when you have a “traumatic event” (for me, a panic attack onstage during a sermon), your amygdala (the brain’s fear center) takes a snapshot of your surroundings so that it can “sound an alarm” in those situations in the future to protect you from that event happening again. Because mine happened while I was preaching, every time I approached those surroundings (for me it was worship music, lights / cameras, speaking in front of crowds) my brain triggered my flight-or-flight instinct, which caused an attack. The therapist triggered a couple attacks in his office, told me how to do the same thing, and walked me through how to calm my brain down to re-train it that those situations are safe. I ran those exercises hundreds of times.
When God gave me words, I made them “the wallpaper of my life.” This will sound terrible for a pastor, but I was so emotionally wrecked I could barely focus to read my Bible or pray. But when I did, OH MAN did God speak to me. Throughout the 8 months, over and over the Spirit personalized passages from the Bible to me (Exodus 4:10-12, Psalm 32:6-7, Psalm 103:1-5, Isaiah 41:9-10, Isaiah 43:1-7), and when he did I wanted to “wallpaper my life with them.” I put them in iPhone notes to read when the waves came, memorized them, wrote them on index cards to keep in my pocket, recited them over and over out loud on walks, shouted them into the air in my office before preaching. When the Psalm says, “he surrounds me with shouts of deliverance,” I took that to mean that when my heart shouted things like…
- You’ll never be happy again
- You’re going to humiliate yourself onstage and never be able to preach again
- People hate you
- This is the beginning of the end
… that God’s Spirit “drowns out” the shouts of my heart with the louder shouts of his deliverance that are given to me in the Bible. So, that was my strategy. Here’s an example of the type of things I’d shout in my heart to drown out the voice of anxiety:
“Anxiety, you are loud right now. But I’m going to be LOUDER. I am NOT alone. Gethsemane shows me that. There IS someone who cares for me. The Cross proves that. My future is NOT hopeless. The resurrection declares that. I WILL be used by God to make a difference in this world. Pentecost proclaims that. My God will strengthen me, he will help me, he will uphold me with his righteous right hand! When I walk through the waters, they shall not overwhelm me! When I pass through the fire, I shall not be burned, for greater is he that is in me than he that is in the world! He is a hiding place for me; He preserves me from trouble; he delivers my life from the pit! Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and then I will dwell in the house of the Lord FOREVER. So this anxiety WILL. NOT. LAST. FOREVER. Sorrow may last for the night, but JOY comes in the morning! So, Anxiety: your days are numbered, so that even if you last until my dying breath, you will be vanquished for all eternity while I escape to the everlasting joy of the Father’s presence. In the words of DA Carson, I’m not suffering from anything that a good resurrection cannot fix!”
I used medication extremely sparingly. In NO WAY am I saying this is how you should approach this, but I chose not try ongoing medication. I used very light medication in light doses situationally before speaking to keep my heart rate down, but personally chose to forego ongoing medication, because if there were issues in my soul that needed dealt with I wanted to address the problem instead of dulling the symptoms. Light medication to keep my heart rate down while speaking kept me from feeling a pounding heart and then thinking, “OH NO, AN ATTACK IS COMING ON!!!” on stage, which would send me into a downward spiral.
“The way out is through.” A pastor who had made it through anxiety attacks before explained to me that when you avoid the thing that causes you anxiety, you “feed the beast” and the anxiety around that thing gets bigger. “You can’t avoid it. The way out is through.” So, even though I was offered the opportunity to take a break from speaking, I forced myself to keep going. The first two times I made it through preaching (I sat on a stool and basically read a 22 min message, barely holding it together), began to break the back of the stranglehold anxiety had on me.
I prayed Psalm 77 and was REAL honest with God about what I felt like he was doing to me, but cried out in hope that he would restore.
I rested my brain. Your brain is an organ, just like your muscles. If your muscles cramp up, you rest them and give them what they need. If your brain “cramps up” (anxiety attack), find ways to rest it and give it what it needs! Anything that could take my mind off the fear or give me a second of enjoyment, I did those things…
- If I found a song I liked, I played it a thousand times with my windows down.
- I bought a Super Nintendo Classic, and beat Mario World, Mario Kart, and Street Fighter II (again… because I dominated those things in middle school 😉
- I went the pool with my kids everyday after work.
- We binge watched some shows we love
- I focused on the future of Lake Pointe, and kept saying out loud: “I have my dream job.”
- I started going to Starbucks for sermon prep, so I could drink something I like while preparing to preach
- OPPOSITE: I noticed social media was really, really bad for my anxiety.
I fought for hope by celebrating EVERY positive thing. Forgetfulness is the greatest enemy of faith, because when we forget what God did we stop believing what he’ll do. So, I created an iPhone note called “recovery” and anytime some small “win” happened or there was an encouraging thought, I dropped it in there so I had everything hopeful catalogued to remember when a wave came on. Here’s a screenshot of part of that note; parts of it may look almost childish, but I just needed get any celebration possible in there to have in front of me for the dark moments that came…
This post has gotten really long, so I’m ending it like running into a brick wall. I just want to say this to anyone struggling with anxiety: IT WON’T LAST FOREVER. Here’s a picture of something that 6 months ago I never thought could happen again: me having fun while preaching last weekend.