When Panic Attacks Me (Broken Heart Syndrome)

[NOTE: This article was originally posted July 12, 2013. Since then it was updated and published in October 2019, as part of the Introduction to the 31-day devotional, Anxiety: Knowing God’s Peace. Here it is, as an excerpt of that Introduction.]

Six years ago, I could not have written this book. I was a prisoner. Anxiety crippled me and held me captive. Satan took advantage of an extended season of depression I was going through that had been triggered by the impact of a myriad of difficulties in our church and family. Mounting pressure from every direction, along with my own angry response to it, collided to create a swirling storm of fear. I had experienced anxiety before, but never like this. I couldn’t go on. Some days, I didn’t even want to.

Twice I went to the emergency room showing symptoms of a heart attack. After my second trip to the ER, my physician sent me to a cardiologist to get blood work and a stress test. The tests determined that I hadn’t had an actual heart attack (the kind that causes permanent damage to the heart muscle) but a stress-induced heart problem that causes only short-term harm.

The Mayo Clinic calls it broken heart syndrome —a temporary heart condition that is brought on by stressful situations or grievous loss. It involves a surge of stress hormones disrupting the heart’s normal pumping function. This condition mimics a heart attack by causing a similar set of symptoms, including chest pain, shortness of breath, an irregular heartbeat, and generalized weakness. When this occurs, people believe they are having a heart attack. I did—twice, in less than a year. And what I experienced is more common than I knew.

Perhaps you can relate to one or more parts of my story. Perhaps not. Regardless, we all struggle with various forms of anxiety.

What does your anxiety look like? Is it mild worry? Or full-blown panic? Or something in between? Did you pick up this devotional because feelings of anxiousness come and go—or because they are constant? No matter what your anxiety looks like, the Bible speaks truth and peace into your mind and heart. Scripture directly addresses the anxious heart in helpful ways.

Anxiety Is Entwined with Our Bodies

Anxiety is a persistent part of our human condition. It’s so common that an estimated 23 million Americans suffer from panic attacks, while millions more identify themselves as having some form of anxiety disorder. It is helpful to realize how honestly the Scriptures uncover this side of human experience, shed light on the effect that anxiety has on our bodies (and vice versa), and fuel the faith that strengthens inner security and peace.

Thousands of years ago, Jewish patriarchs recognized the impact of powerful emotions on the body. For example, Jacob feared the possibility of premature death from deep sorrow and distress (see Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29). When his son Judah pleaded for Joseph to release his youngest brother Benjamin, he specifically begged to be allowed to return Benjamin to his father. Judah said, “As soon as I come to your servant my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol”—that is, to the grave by premature death (Gen. 44:30–31).

The Bible also contains examples of the reverse happening— of anxiety being caused by physical suffering. The author of Psalm 102 pleaded with God to listen to him in his distress, which was not connected to his sin but occurred alongside his physical afflictions (see vv. 3–5). Job, too, is an example of this. As the result of immense loss and excruciating bodily pain, he experienced deep anxiety. “I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil” (Job 3:26 NIV). Even the apostle Paul experienced burdens that were “beyond [his] strength” (2 Cor. 1:8). It does not take much imagination to see how his mental suffering was a consequence of physical suffering.

Scripture Heals Our Souls

Not only is our physical frame custom-made by God, but so is our emotional makeup (see Ps. 139:13–14)! We are so amazingly designed by God that he should be exalted and praised— though the full interplay of our bodies and spirits, as well as the understanding of our beautiful and yet complicated emotions, remain mysterious to us.

One thing is clear, however: we are always made up of body and soul . . . together . . . always. Regardless of what physical elements may contribute to our anxiety, every mental or emotional struggle we experience is also an opportunity to develop our faith. Our souls are always in need of the Spirit’s ministry of grace and truth through the Word.

I’m not a physician, but I am a “soul doctor”—a pastor who wants to help you connect with the healing words of Scripture so that mental and emotional peace will reign in your heart, despite whatever physical or circumstantial challenges you face.

The Goal of This Book

When panic attacks, it truly does feel as if an enemy is attacking us. Debilitating fear strikes us out of nowhere. We don’t always know why we’re anxious. Though external pressures do act as triggers, and while some anxiety arises from physical problems, fundamentally there is something going on in our inner person. Fears and doubts hijack our peace, inner turmoil ensues, and our hearts pound.

“Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (Prov. 12:25). This proverb hardly needs explanation. Anxiety in our hearts troubles our spirits, which in turn affects our bodies. Although anxiety sometimes arises from malfunctions in our bodies, this devotional addresses anxiety that is connected to the soul. Anxiety weakens us—it drags us down. But there is something that lifts us up and makes us glad: a good word—whether from God in Scripture or from a faithful friend.

In this book, I aim to bring you both. I want to bring you healing words by coming alongside you as an encouraging friend. I hope to enter your personal struggle with anxiety by allowing you to enter mine—to open a window to my heart in order to share biblical truths that the Lord continues to use in order to help bring me greater peace.

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