By Sue Magrath, MC | Sacred Mountain Ministries
Last month, Austin Adkinson wrote about his personal struggle with anxiety and making the difficult decision to go public with his struggle and ask for help. In his article, he shared that after his disclosure, many people came to him asking about the symptoms of anxiety as they tried to understand what they or a loved one were experiencing. As a result, I decided that it might be helpful to have a follow-up column on that subject.
Anxiety has many forms, so there is no one-size-fits-all description. Included under the anxiety umbrella are phobias, post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Many of these diagnoses may include panic attacks as part of their symptomology.
So what exactly is a panic attack? Basically it is the body’s fight-or-flight response to a thought or stimulus that puts you into panic mode. If you can imagine a security officer surrounded by closed circuit monitors that lives inside your brain (think of the animated movie Inside Out), a panic attack occurs when the security officer notices something on one of the monitors that triggers a full-scale alarm. That’s when the brain hits the panic button, setting off a cascade of physiological responses to the perceived emergency. In addition to severe anxiety, the person may experience increased heart rate, trembling, shortness of breath or hyper-ventilation, lightheadedness, tingling in the extremities, and possibly chest pain, nausea, and chills or sweats. Four or more of these symptoms would be classified as an “official” panic attack.
At times, these symptoms can make the sufferer fear that they are going crazy or that they are going to die. Sometimes one is able to identify the stimulus that caused the attack, but some people may have no clue what triggered it. Usually the symptoms peak within 10 to 15 minutes, but they can be highly distressing when they occur. Deep, slow abdominal breaths can help ease the symptoms more quickly. Even if you think you know what you experienced was a panic attack, you should see a doctor to make sure the symptoms are not due to a more serious underlying medical condition.
Now let’s take a look at some of the different types of anxiety disorders. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is by far the most common. It is characterized by chronic and persistent worry over time about a number of different aspects of life. These are people who just cannot find the off button for the anxious thoughts that take up so much space in their heads. Other symptoms may include irritability, restlessness, or lack of concentration due to intrusive thoughts.
People with GAD can experience physical symptoms such as fatigue, muscle tension, or digestive issues, and they often have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Certainly clergy have more stressors to worry about than many other professions, so it makes sense that a certain level of anxiety is a common occupational hazard.
Now for the phobias which include:
- social phobia—an unreasonable fear and avoidance of social situations to the extent that it interferes with one’s ability to function in relationships or occupational settings;
- agoraphobia—an unreasonable fear and avoidance of public places like malls, crowds, public transportation, etc. such that it creates severe limitations on one’s ability to live a “normal” life;
- specific phobias—an unreasonable fear of a specific object or situation (i.e. fear of snakes, heights, flying, etc.) that leads to avoidance and causes extreme anxiety or distress when avoidance is not possible. Any of these phobias can trigger a panic attack.
In obsessive-compulsive disorder, one experiences obsessive thoughts, impulses, or images that are intrusive and disturbing and cause high levels of anxiety or distress. In a desire to make these troubling thoughts go away, the person often feels driven to engage in repetitive behaviors such as counting, checking, hand-washing, or praying according to strict rules that are applied with extreme rigidity. These behaviors are usually illogical and have little or no connection to the obsessive thoughts they are attempting to keep at bay.
Finally, let’s take a brief look at post-traumatic stress disorder. The primary component here is that the person suffered or witnessed a traumatic event which involved actual serious injury or the threat of injury or death during which they experienced intense fear, helplessness, or horror. This might include an automobile accident, a mugging, sexual abuse or assault, bombings, public shootings, etc. It’s important to note that what is perceived as traumatic by one person might not be traumatic to another. Just a few of the symptoms of PTSD include intrusive memories and flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance of triggers that remind the person of the trauma, inability to recall some aspects of the event, feelings of detachment from others, difficulty sleeping, irritability, and hypervigilance (constantly scanning their environment for danger.)
So here’s the bottom line. Anxiety disorders are not something to be ashamed of. In some cases, there is a genetic tendency that makes one more prone to develop one of these disorders over time. Sometimes, we learn to be anxious people from our parents. Sometimes, too much is expected of us too soon, before we feel confident to handle all of the possible situations that life might hand us. And sometimes anxiety is triggered by an event or stressful situation that overwhelms our capacity to cope.
Anxiety is not a sign of weakness. It is an understandable and treatable disorder that can be overcome with medical and/or psychological help and the support of loving friends, family and colleagues. If you have recognized yourself in this column today, don’t be afraid to reach out. Someone will be there to lend a hand.
Sue Magrath is a spiritual director and retreat leader living in the Seven Rivers District. She also coordinates efforts such as the Clergy Wellness Corner to support the health of spiritual leaders in the Pacific Northwest.