There are those moments in life that are game changers. There exists a thin veneer or disillusion of control and then in a breath, it’s all gone. I’ve experienced one of these recently. But first – some history.
About 11 years ago, Faith (my wife) and I were living in Tampa and I won a free scuba diving lesson/certification as part of a golf scramble. I grew up water skiing in central Florida and spent my summers in the pool. This seemed like a natural progression in my love for all things water, so I committed to training for certification. The lessons were going great until I we started training to “clear our masks”. For those unfamiliar, it’s necessary to be able to remove the water from your mask when you’re submerged, so the instructors teach students to lift their masks and blow out of their nose to clear the water. I guess everyone has a touch of claustrophobia if the situation is right but mine caught me by surprise during the exercise and came on in spades. However, I was determined to complete the course and powered through the remainder of the training and certification.
During the final day of training, I actually had what I could only describe as an anxiety attack on the bottom of the lake and just had to lay there on the bottom with my eyes closed and calm my body so I could finish. There were some interesting residual effects lasting a few days following the training I didn’t expect. I had difficulty putting my head under the water in the shower, drinking through a straw and even kissing my wife because they all triggered the same sensation. Obviously, I refused to give up those activities, so I eventually worked my way through them with repetition and time.
Fast forward to the present and I still had inklings of the sensation when I’d have my head under water for long periods of time but nothing of the magnitude I’d experienced previously. So, a few weeks ago we took a family vacation out to the South Carolina coast and there were a few mild instances in the pool. Later one evening, Faith and I were working out doing some plyometric exercise and I became extremely winded. I don’t know if it was due to the smaller occurrences in the pool but a larger anxiety came over me. I finished the workout, we concluded our vacation and then headed home.
The first week we were home, we were in a similar routine and my world turned upside down. I experienced a lot of what I experienced in South Carolina with a drastic difference: I allowed fear to grip me. We finished the routine but I was unable to control the anxiety and it began to creep over into the previously affected areas and a few more. I never experienced what some would call a full-fledged panic attack (uncontrolled breathing, heart racing, heart attack symptoms). Mine was more of what it feels like on a roller coaster or a suspense movie but all day. By the end of the day, I honestly felt I was losing my mind. I quickly learned the body wasn’t designed to sustain that level of intensity over a long period of time. It even got to the point a couple times where I entertained thoughts of ending it all because it was so unbearable.
It went on for a day or two at that intensity level and I felt like I needed to share with Faith. Of course, she was concerned and mentioned I should reach out to a Christian counselor friend of ours. I learned something at this point. There is a certain degree of pain when all pride is null and void. I needed help and reached out. I’ll forever be grateful for the conversation that followed because it’s changed my path.
First of all, he mentioned I was far from alone. I don’t know if that fully hit me until I was able to re-gain some resemblance of control. He then told me he was encouraged. I was so broken in that moment I felt I could have fallen apart but then he explained. He said, “I really feel like God is going to use this in your life to enable you to empathize and relate to people who are hurting.” This had a more immediate impact but I was still so broken it didn’t last for long. I explained that I felt like my fear was increasing exponentially and he clarified that fear and anxiety is more likened to a line of dominoes. It goes a little deeper each time but doesn’t “take over”. I asked if I needed medication and he said he didn’t think I did at that point in time. He said that on a scale, I was at the milder end of what he’d experienced. This made me feel both like a complete loser and at the same time, broken for those on the other end of the spectrum.
Over the course of the next couple weeks, I had successes and failures. I started praying, writing things down and experimenting with techniques to begin to take control of my mind. Thanks to the blessing of a Godly wife, she set me on the right track after reminding me of the following scripture:
For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. 2 Timothy 1:7, English Standard Version (ESV)
I think this was the first glimpse of hope into taking control of the fear and there was Biblical foundation as proof. It also helped me to understand it’s God’s will, so he’d be there to help.
I wrote a few other items down that helped me at the time. I hadn’t read a ton, so these were learned through practice and experimentation. Later, I found out they resonate both within the larger community and the Word.
- Speak positively. Do not allow yourself to feed your mind negative thoughts. Remind yourself of your successes.
- Do not “think ahead”. Take things as they come.
Since, I’ve had days of almost complete success and days of relapse. The relapses have mostly come from aggravation and embarrassment. This was never on the radar for me. I was literally blindsided. I could have probably named about ten other potential areas of failure but this one came out of left field. It made me angry to have to deal with such irrational emotions. The anger would lead to thoughts of what would happen if I completely lost control of my mind and lost my family, job, ministry, etc.
Over the course of weeks, wrestling back and forth with the issue, I’ve been able to line some of my experiences with Biblical concepts. The revelation has been and continues to be gradual but as I’m learning, I’m committed to write them down. Through my experience, I now see there are both practical and spiritual reasons for the following verses.
Matthew 6:31–33, English Standard Version (ESV)
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Philippians 4:6–7, English Standard Version (ESV)
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Fear is caused from contemplation and worry over the “what if’s” of life; all of which are ultimately out of our control.
It was at this point I realized my greatest failure in the whole ordeal and at the same time, my greatest lesson to be learned. I don’t completely trust God is in control.
The downward spiral that’s created in the mind by harboring the “what ifs” are born from being unable to control what happens in the future. And – it’s true. That was one of the moments that began to turn the tide for me. I have now come to the understanding I can’t control much. Presently, there are many things of which I have been appointed steward and am expected to manage for God’s glory. However, the majority of the future is completely out of my control. The picture gradually became clearer.
Matthew 6:34, English Standard Version (ESV)
Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
My grandmother paraphrased this verse and said, “Don’t borrow trouble.” From my own experience, I’d written, Do not “think ahead”. Take things as they come. I wanted to (in and effort to overcome) constantly test my mind with situations that would potentially make me feel anxious. I realized there was no point in “testing” myself constantly. It was of no benefit. All it could do was add tomorrow’s concerns to today’s. In reality, the actual events I was anticipating rarely caused anxiety themselves. It was the anticipation of “feeling” anxious in certain situations. I was anxious about potentially becoming anxious. This is mind-numbing logic. I still have a hard time with the fact that most of the feelings I’m experiencing aren’t rational. They make no sense but are yet very real to my body and mind. God brought me to the place where I realized I had to re-train my mind.
Previously, I established that Christ had provided me with spirit of “power, love and self-control”. I had been given the ability to self control. I’d already identified several ways to accomplish the task and now I had Biblical basis to back the up.
1. Think Life (Take Every Thought Captive)
2 Corinthians 10:5 English Standard Version (ESV)
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,
In my process of research, I found an author who phrased it this way:
- Let your worries go. Notice that when you don’t try to control the anxious thoughts that pop up, they soon pass, like clouds moving across the sky. It’s only when you engage your worries that you get stuck.
I can’t express the depth of truth in this statement. There’s no point in resisting the initial thought. If your mind is conditioned to respond to every situation in fear, it’s going to happen until it’s reconditioned. What you can do is acknowledge the fear and the breeze right on by. God began to speak to me in a broader sense upon this realization. Anxiety and worry are just a small part of this equation. Didn’t he say to take every thought captive? So, does this include all patterns of thought leading to sin?
Matthew 5:27-28 English Standard Version (ESV)
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
This passage speaks specifically to lust but is an example of the larger point. Sin doesn’t make it into the heart until it’s been mulled over in the mind. If we’re able to discipline our minds to “dwell” on good thinks and “pass” on negative thoughts, we’ve come into alignment with God’s will and in turn, set ourselves up for a very peaceful, joy-filled existence on this earth. It will take practice and time but I’ve heard testimony and begun to see in my own life where it becomes natural.
Philippians 4:8 English Standard Version (ESV)
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
2. Speak Life
Luke 6:45 English Standard Version (ESV)
The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
Please don’t feel condemned by this scripture. The intent is to convey garbage in/garbage out. In contrast, once we’ve begun to store “good” in our heart due to our change in thinking, the overflow should be natural. However, until we get to that point we need to condition ourselves to speak positively. There are always bad things to talk about. It’s much more difficult to look on the bright side. At some point, this will become old hat. For now, it will require work. In Battlefield of the Mind, Joyce Meyer says it this way:
If we focus only on the negative things in our lives, we become negative people. Everything, including our conversations, becomes negative. We soon lose our joy and live miserable lives– and it all started with our own thinking.
One more word of caution, I would encourage you to pursue relationships with people who speak positively into your life. Hurting people hurt people. We all know who people who for every good thing said, they can come up with 5 bad about the same situation. Be very intentional to surround yourself with people who speak life.
3. Live Life
I heard a story when I was in the heaviest part of my battle about a young businessman who had a similar experience as mine. But rather than engaging his fear (driving, etc.) he retreated to the confines of his home and withdrew from society, allowing his fear to consume him. After two years, he sought out professional help and began to participate in the very activities having caused him anxiety. He was eventually able to overcome them entirely but his main point was not to retreat from activities you used to love because of anxiety.
I was on the phone the other day with my cousin who was trained Special Forces. In pursuit of more tools to begin a path of right thinking, I asked if the military had trained him to overcome anxiety. I knew and he confirmed the military intentionally places soldiers in stressful situations as part of training. Although he couldn’t think of anything specifically, he said the main methodology they used was repetition. Over the course of time, the reinforcement of an action will eventually take hold. In my own experience, I’ve noticed when I “pass by” a thought, the action having caused me anxiety previously becomes more routine over time.
I hope this has been an encouragement to someone. My hope is this will serve as a Biblical, practical and effective tool to combat dangerous thought life leading to joy and victory.