I knew when I turned out the light that I would be up in a couple of hours.
I could feel the unsettling burning in my stomach. I was tired enough to fall asleep quickly, but when the clock read 2:30 a.m, I was predictably awake with a pounding heart, sweat-soaked pajamas, and a brain firing every neuron in my head that’s labeled with anxious thoughts. I knew better than to just lie there. I kicked off the too-warm covers and slipped out of bed quietly. I roamed the dark house, pausing for a drink of water to quell the quivering in my belly. I stood by the window, blinking against the darkness, fingers pressed against the cold glass. This is real, I whispered. Not the fear standing in my peripheral vision.
I checked on my kids, adjusting blankets and stuffed animals. I sat on the couch with the lamp on and breathed long, slow breaths. In. Out. I picked up a book. Put it down. Paced the living room restlessly. Prayed for the messy tangle of suffocating thoughts to loosen and still. An hour later, I climbed back into bed still unknotting my compulsory thoughts and reminding myself of the realness of the blanket in my hands, of the sleeping man lying next to me.
Like most of my anxiety attacks, there was no one reason for my panic. My anxiety doesn’t usually stem from a particular event or hovering fear. It happens without a nameable reason, without a clear indication of why. I know that my brain and my hormones are working against me–sometimes as the result of poor food and drink choices from the day before, sometimes because of an overly filled calendar, and sometimes as a result of nothing I can trace or understand.
The first few episodes I ever had presented themselves when my autoimmune disease woke up right before I turned thirty. I’ll be battling the brokenness of my body until the day I see Jesus face-to-face. I see the dysfunction of my frail flesh as a result of Eve’s first disobedient bite in the dimming beauty of Eden. Not that I blame her, of course. I would have tasted it, too. You’d have found me by the tree, hands sticky with guilt, stomach churning in the repercussive knowledge that I had done the one thing I shouldn’t. So, no, I don’t blame Eve as much as I blame the general effects of sin. It doesn’t matter much, anyway. Jesus covered all the blame at the cross.
Because the consequences of a broken body still pulse through my veins at a pace that makes it hard to breathe sometimes, I’ve had to develop some coping mechanisms. It’s difficult as a Christian to admit that I struggle with anxiety, but this discussion can help remove the stigma that anxiety is merely a lack of faith. You can read my first public writing about anxiety here.
While I can’t cure my anxiety, there are things I do that can help. Since I only have anxiety attacks at night, my tools for coping are things that I do at night to still the whirling mass of tangled thoughts.
1) Utilize grounding techniques.
Grounding is a way of helping your brain draw a line between what is real and imagined. My anxiety isn’t usually founded on one cause; it spins from nothing I can name. Even when anxiety stems from real concerns or fears, panic attacks blow those concerns out of their logical margins. So, while my thoughts are swirling like a storm of static and white noise in my head, I orient myself with what’s real.
This means I need to get out of bed as soon as it starts. I walk around my house, touching objects–the dining room table, the living room windowpane, the kitchen counter. I force my mind to slow down by naming things and what I associate with them. “This is the dining room table, and it is real. It’s warped in the middle where my son banged on it with a fork repeatedly one night at dinner. Remember when we covered the table with newspapers and painted pumpkins here at Halloween?” This little practice forces my brain to tell a story, which is how it likes to work. It makes the spinning stop for a minute, helping me to disassociate from the foggy panic.
2) Ground yourself in the gospel.
I call this my “Christian grounding technique.” This is when I run through the truths of the gospel to remind myself what is true, what my brain and heart believe the most. It’s the anxious person’s creed. I believe that God made me, loves me, sent Jesus to save me. Jesus died for my sin and for all my weaknesses, even for this moment now when I’m afraid of what I cannot name. He is with me right now, He is always with me. He will not abandon me in my anxiety. This is a good time to turn on a lamp and open to the Psalms. This is when you read words of truth to combat the lies in your head, and you do it until you’re sleepy enough to return to bed.
Sometimes I am hesitant to get back into bed for fear that the spinning in my head will start back up. I have a few Scriptures that I have memorized for this very thing. I recite them until I fall asleep. The simple act of reciting something from memory forces my mind to stop what it’s doing and do something else. Additionally, I’ve found it helpful to pray through the list of things I usually pray through during my morning Bible study hour. I’ve been praying through that list for years, so I have it memorized which gives me something else to dwell on when I’m lying in bed trying to rest after a fight with anxiety.
Here are a few of my go-to verses:
I will both lie down and sleep in peace for You alone, Lord, make me to dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:8)
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10)
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. (Psalm 46:1-3)
3) Prepare ahead of time.
The prayer list and Scriptures verses are things you want to have on hand in preparation for an anxiety attack. Begin memorizing a few verses now so you’ll have them ingrained in your head and heart when you really need them. Fill your mind with good things, as we’re instructed in Philippians: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (4:8-9). Read books that assure you of God’s sovereignty, listen to sermons that preach gospel truth every week, make it a priority to be active in your local church.
As a musician, I find music to be a very soothing way to calm my heart (and pretty much to express every emotion I can conjure up!). Here’s my personal playlist for times of anxiety. This is another way to fill yourself with good, true things.
4) Avoid potential triggers and guard your heart.
Though my anxiety attacks aren’t often rooted in any one specific issue, there are things I’ve discovered that can trigger a nighttime episode. So, while I do some proactive things to help me fight anxiety, there are also things I avoid. Lots of processed food, sugar, too much caffeine or alcohol, and certain brands of cold medicine are all things that can trigger an anxiety attack. Similarly, too much of the wrong kind of stimuli in the evening can also be potential triggers. I do not ever watch violent television, I don’t consume certain types of disturbing books or shows, and I try to shut down my screen time at least thirty minutes before bed. Reading before bed is a habit I’ve had since childhood, and I find it is something my mind and body need to rest without excessive waking. Be mindful of what you are using to fill your mind and heart. And for some of you it might not quality of stimuli as much as it is a quantity.
5) Ask for help.
If my anxiety becomes unbearable, more present, or is accompanied by depression I will see a medical professional as soon as possible, and I would encourage you to do the same when you feel like you need help. Broken bodies sometimes need medical assistance. There is no shame in that. See your doctor to talk about your issues.
But don’t stop there, either.
I’ve found anxiety to be both a physical and spiritual issue because as a believer, everything in my life is bound up in my relationship with Christ. Talk to your spouse, a friend, a pastor, a Bible study group, and ask for prayer. There is no shame in that, either. If having a weakness like anxiety is embarrassing to you as a believer, take heart in knowing the Lord’s grace is more than sufficient for you because in your weakness, He is strong. There is a stigma in the Christian community about having anxiety, but there shouldn’t be. If anxiety reveals your need for the Lord every minute of every day, then learn to be grateful for the thorn in your flesh even as you pray to be released from it. Paul’s story in 1 Corinthians 12 of persevering in weakness should be encouraging to us all.
When it comes down to it, Christian, anxiety tethers us to our brokenness. We long for our real home where our true citizenship lies, and one day we will be absolutely free of fear, panic, and pain. While you wait, view your anxiety as a means by which you learn to lean hard on the vast strength of the Lord. Train your heart to trust Him during the day so that you can remember to trust in Him in the night. In so doing, you’re creating spiritual muscle memory.
And above all, remember that He is with you. When you feel like your thoughts are stretched so tight they might snap, He is with you. When your heart won’t slow its pace, He is with you. When you’re afraid of what you cannot name, He is with you. When you ask for help, He is with you. When you can’t stop the white noise from grabbing your every thought, He is with you. When you plead with Him to be near, He is with you.
When you feel alone in the dark with your fear, the Lord is with you.When you feel alone in the dark with your fear, the Lord is with you. Click To Tweet