It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was about forty-five minutes from preaching the closing session of the seminary’s annual student conference. Sitting in my office and scrolling through my phone while listening to the session before mine on the livestream, I suddenly felt something very wrong.
My heart rate began to surge. I had the overwhelming sensation of my body “shutting down.” I felt internally as though I was seizing up and was about to die. Beginning to panic, I decided I needed to exit my office and enter a public area where I might access help. I thought I might be having a heart attack.
Sitting down on a couch in the foyer, I signaled security that I was in distress. EMTs arrived, stretcher in tow. After being examined, I opted not to go to the hospital. My wife came to get me and took me home, and the next day we went to see the doctor.
Blood was drawn. My heart was scanned. My personal and family history was scoured.
It was determined I had not suffered a heart attack. The diagnosis? Anxiety-induced panic attack.
This was not a total surprise to me, as I’ve been experiencing sporadic “flashes” of panic over the last six or seven years, always while driving. I’d never suffered an attack outside that context, and it didn’t feel quite the same. It felt more severe. I’d never felt before that I needed emergency services or that I was about to die. Now I’ve learned that this thing has been building, and it can strike any time.
Part of me wished they had found something else. Something they could go in and take out. Something they could “clean up” or fix. Instead I have . . . anxiety. Even when I don’t feel particularly nervous about anything.
“What were you doing when it happened?” people keep asking.
“Nothing,” I say. “Just sitting there.”
“Were you nervous about speaking?”
“Were you agitated about something?”
“No. I was literally just sitting at my desk, killing time.”
I am literally “anxious for nothing.”
I have had people throw Bible verses my way, none of which have I been unfamiliar with. The top recommendation is of course Philippians 4:6-7: “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
But it’s not that kind of anxiety. I am not worrying about any particular thing. People tell me, “Just don’t worry,” and I just say “Okay.”
And while it can feel helpless to contemplate whatever is going on inside of me, I am not helpless to address it the best I can. Here are three things I’m reminding myself in this new season of being anxious for nothing:
1. I can adopt healthier habits.
It is very likely that this vague anxiety is the result of ten straight years of full-throttle work and ministry without an extended break. I do rest when I can, but it is never sustained and probably not enough to help my body recover from my work schedule. And it’s been very tempting while busy to become lazy in other areas, like diet and exercise, for instance.
It’s quite possible that my body is, as they say, “keeping the score.” So I’ve committed to a more regular day off each week, to a stricter diet, and to more vigorous exercise. Worst of all, I’ve cut out caffeine! No more quad-shot lattes each morning.
I might not be able to ward off all panic attacks this way, but I can try to offset them. Maybe given enough time, I can actually retrain my system to soothe itself. I can’t control everything, but I can be a better steward of what God has given me (1 Corinthians 9:27).
2. I can stop saying yes to everything.
I like to please people. I’d like to think that most of my speaking engagements are the result of wanting to be used maximally by God in the time I’ve been given. The reality is that there are probably some that are simply owed to my reluctance to disappoint anyone.
Billy Graham was once asked about regrets from his long journey of faithful ministry. Among his answers he mentioned saying yes to too may invitations. That was convicting to me.
But it’s not just speaking invites. It’s lots of other things too. I have to be very vigilant about my calendar, because I do not see an empty day as a chance for rest and recreation but as a place to schedule another appointment.
It’s the odd malady of our age where have all this technology and convenience to give us more free time, but we’re busier than ever. I can repent of people-pleasing and FOMO (“fear of missing out”) and take the risk of saying “no” more often.
3. I can cast my vague cares upon God.
It’s good that God’s peace “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), because my anxiety surpasses my understanding too! But I don’t have to know the ins and outs of my condition to trust God with it. I don’t have to know just when the next panic attack will strike. I tell myself that it’s enough that God does. And I can trust Him with all the knowledge He omnisciently possesses.
You don’t have to understand all your cares to cast them on God (1 Peter 5:7). You just need to know He cares for you. He doesn’t love some idealized version of you. He really loves the broken, weird, messed-up you.
I’m not depressed, but I have been. I’ve known the dark shadow that cannot be explained, against which sentimental advice and inspirational pick-me-ups can’t prevail. It is easy to think in such circumstances that you’ve been forgotten or forsaken.
You may not comprehend all that’s happening to you, but you can remind yourself of the purposes of the One working it toward your eventual good. That’s what I’m going to do with my “anxious nothings”—ask God to take them away and believe that, even if He doesn’t, He is still good, still here, still actively working in my life to complete my joy and glorify Himself.