When Anxiety Goes Too Far

NervousAnxiety is a natural side effect to fear.

Proverbs 12:25 says “an anxious heart weighs a man down.” And that surely sums up the effect of anxiety. Anxiety causes all sorts of unpleasant reactions within our bodies. If these are allowed to take hold, it can disrupt our lives and even become incapacitating. Anxiety is another part of the cancer rollercoaster. If you are on that ride, you’re bound to experience anxiety at times. Anxiety about:

  • the next treatment, and whether the reactions will be as severe as the last one
  • the important function you want to attend. Will your blood count allow you to go?
  • the family member who lives in your home–or the friend who thoughtlessly visited–who has a dreadful cold. Will you catch it with your impaired immunity, and not be able to have your next chemo?
  • whether your medical aid scheme will cover the huge costs of treatment
  • your surgery. Did the surgeon get it all out?
  • your faith versus what the doctors say you must do. Should you trust God and drop the treatment? Or should you trust God to help you THROUGH the treatment?

As anxieties crowd in, a favorite expression people like to quote at the cancer victim is “Fear is the opposite of Faith.” Don’t accept that statement, no matter how well intended. You can’t help but be anxious. That’s part of the ride. The problem is when it gets out of control. One common phenomenon experienced by those on treatment for cancer is a panic attack. This is a sudden episode of ovewhelming terror that may come on with no warning or obvious cause. It took me a while to diagnose the intense feeling of fear and physical shaking I experienced as a “Panic Attack”. After all, Christians shouldn’t have panic attacks. Should they? Maybe in an ideal world they shouldn’t. But I sure did, and many people on the cancer journey do.

Here’s how to recognise a panic attack:

  • It comes on without warning and you’re unable to prevent it.
  • It can happen anywhere, any time. It can start when you’re driving in heavy traffic, or relaxing in bed at night. I had one in the middle of a busy shop while packing my shopping cart.
  • It is out of proportion to the present circumstances, and often the person doesn’t know why it’s happening.
  • It doesn’t last more than a few minutes, although it can recur several times over a period of time.
  • The heart starts racing and there may be a difficulty in breathing.
  • An overwhelming terror takes over, possibly with nausea or lightheadedness.
  • The sufferer may sweat and tremble violently.
  • You may feel as if you are choking, or experience chest pains
  • You may have hot flashes or shiver with cold.
  • You may have pins and needles in the extremities
  • You may experience a sense of impending doom, that you’re having an emotional breakdown or is dying.

(Notice all the “MAY”s in that list! If they “may happen”–they also “may not”.) So how can you deal with these attacks? If you realize this is your problem, find someone you can talk to. These attacks are real, and in the case of cancer, they are normal. They should not be ignored, nor should you be embarrassed to admit to them. I tried to discuss this with my doctor, who promptly tested me for a bladder infection! When my blood tests were clear, I was assured “nothing’s wrong.” That didn’t help me.

If only I had understood what I’m telling you now. “It’s normal, and there are ways to deal with it.” Although I never gave it the name “panic attack” I did learn two things:

  • It wouldn’t last long. I had to somehow get through the next few minutes and I would be okay.
  • I needed company. The quickest fix for me was to find someone in the home who would hold me tight until the shivering ended.

Please believe me that a panic attack is not a sign you are going crazy. It doesn’t mean the cancer’s gone to your brain. To the contrary, your body is simply going into “fight or flight” mode. But when you don’t understand this, it is all the more terrifying.

In Ecclesiastes 11:10 God tells us to “banish anxiety from your heart!” What wise advice. One of the best ways to banish anxiety is to talk about the things that cause the anxiety.

If a panic attack happens, if at all possible, go to an informed person in the home and demand a hug! If you’re on your own, grab the dog, or a teddy, or even your pillow, and hold it close. Force yourself to breathe deeply. You may not be able to pray coherently, but even saying God’s name slowly with concentration will help to bring calm. At all costs, remember–it won’t last long.

No one dies from a panic attack. However, the more you try to fight it, the more tense you will become. You then become terrified that you will have another panic attack. So when you feel the symptoms coming on . . . you panic! So you’re panicking because you’re going to panic!

Make plans in advance how you will handle these times, and then when the symptoms begin, remind yourself, “I can do this”. If they come frequently, speak to your doctor–and if he doesn’t seem to understand, try another doctor who will understand. You may need some medical intervention or some form of relaxation therapy for your general state of health. This will probably not stop the panic attacks, but they may happen less often. Whatever you do, don’t let anxiety rule your life. You have enough to deal with. You don’t need this too.    

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