By Kathryn Brill

Fake Heart Attacks and Real Hope: My Journey with Anxiety

If we ourselves haven’t experienced a mental illness, most of us know someone who has. One in four adults—about 61.5 million Americans—wrestle with mental illness each year, and 13.6 million live with a serious, ongoing illness such as bipolar disorder or major depression. 

October 6 to 12 is Mental Illness Awareness Week, so we’re posting stories and tools over the next few days to foster conversation and break down misconceptions about mental illness. As you read, may you be encouraged in your own life and better equipped to help others in the journey. 

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I thought I was going to die that night. My body was trembling all over, my chest was tight, and my head swam. I sat on the edge of my tiny dorm room bed, staring blankly into space thinking, I’m going to die in my sleep.

So I prepared accordingly. I texted “Love you!” to my mom. I said good night to my roommates and left my door slightly ajar. I asked God to forgive me for all my sins. I turned my iPod on repeat and listened to John Michael Talbot singing Jesus’ words over and over: “I am the Resurrection, I am eternal life.” Eventually, I fell asleep.

When I woke up the next morning and found that I was still alive, I went to my college’s health clinic. The nurse who examined me looked at me with a mixture of puzzlement and concern. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” she said. “But what you described sounds a lot like an anxiety attack.”

That moment at the health clinic was the beginning of my journey to identify and deal with the anxiety that had been happening for a few months without me understanding it.

A Different Kind of Fear

Anxiety is different than fear, in intensity and in manifestation. When we’re afraid of something, it’s usually because we have enough data to suggest our fears could become reality—for instance, freaking out about failing a test because we don’t have enough time to study properly.

An anxious mind, however, is like an oversensitive car alarm, shrieking a warning where no danger exists. It only takes one muscle twitch to convince me I might have a life-threatening medical condition. My anxiety is disproportionate to the situation. Anxiety also creates actual physical symptoms, like wobbling legs, a feeling of breathlessness, and the sudden conviction that you’re about to die. And while the emotional and physical experiences can be triggered by things that make everyone fearful, like exams or job interviews, they can also come on suddenly from, say, pounding music, too little sleep, or seemingly nothing at all.

Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health issues among adults, but they can make a person feel like he or she is the only one suffering from them. Those of us who suffer from anxiety often get trapped in our own head, focusing on our body and emotions rather than the world around us. And since the struggle is largely internal, it often goes unseen; others think we’re fine when in fact we’re panicking. It can be a very lonely feeling.

Where Is God?

Before I understood my anxiety, I felt trapped in a spiral, unsure if there was a way to escape the worry. I was quick to believe the lies sloshing around in my brain—that I would never be able to stop being afraid, or worse, that fear was the most rational response to life. It felt—and still feels, sometimes—like a fight I could never win, a hole I was perpetually trying to climb out of but inevitably sliding back down into, all the way to the bottom.

And where was God? For a while, I thought that anxiety was a consequence of a poor relationship with God. Maybe if I trusted God just a little more, I would think, or learn to be a little more confident in his good plans for me, my arms and legs would stop shaking so much.

But as I started to recognize that my anxiety was a disorder, not an attitude, I realized that I couldn’t change it with sheer willpower. I found help through therapy and developing coping techniques—and I also started coming to terms with the fact that anxiety might be a constant struggle. Understanding this helped me see that God wasn’t condemning me for my anxiety. Rather, he wanted to see me freed from fear and restored to wholeness.

Hope for Healing

If you also suffer from anxiety, I want you to know that relief is out there. Although my anxiety has by no means disappeared, I’ve come a long way from the night I was expecting to die. I can recognize the mental patterns and symptoms of anxiety and be proactive to keep from being consumed by fear. Two action steps are particularly important in finding hope and relief:

  • Let those around you know you’re struggling. Hiding away won’t help you, and the support of family and friends is essential in the journey.
  • Be sure to seek the help of a therapist. Techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy can give you tools to change harmful thought patterns and reduce your anxiety.

Above all else, God has given us the ultimate weapon against fear—the death and resurrection of his son, Jesus Christ. He stepped into a world that seems to invite more fear, not less, in order to deliver us from the powers of darkness. And when it feels like those powers of darkness are inside our own minds, the resurrection gives us the only true comfort. Our broken thoughts, like our broken world, are being renewed by Jesus. May God give us the grace to cling to this hope, despite our shaky arms.

You might also want to read Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission. (Read an excerpt here.)

Kathryn Brill graduated from Barnard College at Columbia University in May, where she studied English an

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