For years after I had transverse myelitis, I struggled with panic attacks and extreme fears. I didn’t realize until fairly recently that, just as I had to recover from the physical effects of the disease, I also had to recover emotionally and mentally from the trauma of the disease itself.
We all know anything can happen any time. We’re not guaranteed our next breath. But then when something catastrophic does happen, it can throw us for a loop. Our foundations are shaken, our security is threatened. Looking back now, it’s no wonder I had panic attacks. Unfortunately, some of the things I feared were psychiatrists and psychiatric drugs, so I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through. I was given Xanax for a while in the hospital, but no one explained why. I heard it was addictive, so I didn’t take it when I got home. I even wondered if they thought my symptoms were in my head.
If I had it to do over again, I’d talk to my neurologist, who was primarily in charge of my care at the time. I’d ask why I was given Xanax, explain what was going on, see what he had to say, and evaluate the options. That’s what I would advise anyone else to do.
Instead, I read what I could about anxiety and panic attacks. I learned that breathing in slowly through my nose and out through my mouth had a calming effect. I would think through or sing through hymns to get my thoughts on another track. And I would remind myself of truth and common sense, which I later learned was self-talk.
For instance, on our way to the church we attended at the time, we almost always got caught at a red light on an overpass. This overpass was one that trembled when an 18-wheeler passed, which happened often. When a visiting speaker’s wife mentioned that this overpass scared her, my own fears escalated. We knew no other way to get to church than this route. So I would tell myself, “Seriously, how often do you hear of these things falling down? Not very often. It’s more likely not to happen than to happen. If it does happen, there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ll either go straight on to heaven, or God will help you through whatever happens just as He did with TM. Don’t ruin or waste your day by worrying about something that is not likely to happen.” Then I’d sing hymns to myself not only to guide my thoughts away from scary things, but also to remind myself of God’s care and promises.
That helped with things not likely to happen. But what about things that could very well happen? TM was a one-time occurrence with lasting ramifications. But one form of it did cause repeat occurrences. And sometimes what was thought was TM was actually found to be MS when repeated attacks occurred. My TM had started with one hand feeling a little funny, like I had slept on it wrong. Within three hours, my whole left arm and both legs were numb and I couldn’t walk on my own. So every time a limb fell sleep, every time I had a funny, not-quite-right feeling, every time symptoms flared up, so did the fears of a repeat attack. I had to remind myself that this probably was not another attack, but just a flare-up. If it was another attack, God would help me just as He did the first time. Eventually, after multitudes of flare-ups without another full-fledged attack, and after a significant amount of healing, I learned to just roll with the symptoms and eventually to hardly notice them.
Sometimes we have to talk to ourselves over spiritual issues, too, don’t we? A tragedy occurs, and we feel like maybe God doesn’t love us like we thought He did. We remind ourselves that God loves us “with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3), that He loved us even when we were His enemies. Or we feel worthless and remind ourselves we are accepted in the Beloved.
We have several instances of Scriptural self-talk in the psalms. The psalmist asks himself three times, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:5, 11; 43:5, ESV). Then he answers himself, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” David tells himself to “Bless the Lord, O my soul” in Psalm 103 and then reminds himself why he could do so. He reminds himself about God’s character, what He had done for Israel in the past, what He had done for David himself.In Psalm 57, David is hiding in a cave from Saul. After pleading for God’s mercy and reminding himself of God’s power, love, and faithfulness, David tells himself to wake up and praise God:
My heart, O God, is steadfast, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music. Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. (Psalm 57:7-8, NIV).
Other psalms don’t employ that exact language, but they show the writer coming to God with a problem or an issue: Where are you? Why are you not acting? The wicked are faring better than Your people. I’m hurting here. People are persecuting me for no reason.
And then the writer reminds himself of truths about his God: He’s here. He loves us. He cares. The wicked will face their consequences some day if they don’t repent. God will strengthen me and help me.
I shared this quote before from David Martyn-Lloyd Jones in Spiritual Depression, but I love it:
Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them but they are talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this: instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul?” he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, “Self, listen for moment, I will speak to you.”
Instead of being at the mercy of our thoughts, we challenge them and correct them. We need to take our thoughts captive (2 Corinthians 10:5). We set aside wrong thoughts and actively pursue truth. We steady our souls with God’s truth. We fill our minds with God’s Word so the Holy Spirit can remind us of it.
Have you ever had to give yourself a good talking-to?
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