Question: "What does the Bible say about panic attacks?"
Answer: According to the Mayo Clinic website, a panic attack is “a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.” Many people have experienced one or two such episodes and know how frightening the spells can be. There is a difference between the defined medical condition and an ongoing sense of fear that characterizes many people’s lives. A panic attack comes on for no apparent reason, lasts from five to thirty minutes and then subsides—again, for no obvious reason. It is a physical “fight-or-flight” reaction that involves accelerated heart rate, sweating, muscle tension, and pounding pulse, just as if a real danger threatened.
Although many factors, including biology and heredity, can contribute to panic attacks, the underlying issue is fear. Panic is fear gone wild. We live in an era of extreme stress and information overload. Thousands of bits of fear-inducing information enter our brains every day, and, although we may not consciously process it, that information is retained and can form an underlying attitude of hopelessness we may not even be aware of.
The Bible does not speak of panic attacks by name, but it does present several situations that could provoke one. Many times the Bible reports that people were “filled with fear.” That describes panic. In panic mode, a person is completely overcome by the fear response. Psalm 55:4–8 describes what a panic attack feels like: “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. I would flee far away and stay in the desert.’”
One key to overcoming panic attacks is to normalize them. Rather than fear another attack, we can recognize that they are not life-threatening and that God is bigger than the fear. When we begin learning how to let God handle our daily fears, we remove some of the stimuli that can provoke an attack. Allowing fear or worry to build up without facing it and intentionally casting it upon God (1 Peter 5:7) can lead to an eventual panic attack. Denying that we are afraid, pretending we are not worried, or obsessing over our fears can all contribute to our bodies’ reacting in panic. “Fear not” is one of the most common commands in the Bible. God understands that we are prone to fear, and He wants us to have faith instead (Isaiah 35:4; 41:10; Luke 12:4; 1 Peter 3:14).
Jesus put fear in perspective when He said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). He was calling attention to the fact that most of what we fear is temporary and of no eternal consequence. We should rather focus our concerns on whether or not we are in right relationship with God. He has then promised to meet all our other needs (Philippians 4:19; Matthew 6:33). One way we focus on the important is by applying Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” When we refuse to allow our limited understanding to determine our level of peace and joy, we are on our way to escaping the grip of panic attacks.