Gabe and I were sound asleep when our sixteen-year-old daughter, Kennedy, burst into our room at 1:30 in the morning. Gasping for air and desperate, she cried out, “I need help! I can’t get a breath."
I sat up, pulled her close, and calmly but firmly said, “You’re okay, Kennedy. This is a panic attack. Your body feels crazy, but you know what to do. We’re going to breathe through it. Ready, let’s take four slow, deep breaths. In your nose and out of your mouth.”
This wasn’t Kennedy’s first time walking through extreme feelings of anxiety. At just 12 years old, she experienced a racing heart and shortness of breath while away at camp. A new environment triggered her. That was the first time we talked about the way panic can set in, the way it can attack your body. We’ve been having those conversations ever since.
The science of panic
Over the years, Kennedy and I have had ample opportunities to talk through the science of panic. She knows it’s her body’s natural fear response to a racing heart, a response that sets off a danger alarm in the brain. Kennedy’s panic response—a natural response—is just like yours and mine because, just like us, she’s only human.
By helping Kennedy understand the science of panic, I’ve seen her confidence grow in how she responds when the attacks come. No longer afraid she’s about to die, she is equipped to work through her response in a different way. Understanding the science is one thing; knowing how to rewire our brains to fend off the trauma is a practice that takes a strategy.
The brain is an amazing organ. Weighing only three pounds, it is the control center for our entire body, containing 100 billion neurons with 100 trillion connections. Information passes between neurons at the speed of 250 miles per hour. Our brains allow us to feel, taste, see, smell, hear, and think, and all that processing power requires approximately 20 percent of the blood and oxygen in our bodies.
The more science discovers about the brain, the more we’re blown away by the majesty of God’s unique design. Though the brain is fully formed by the age of 18, changing the way it performs is still possible. If we’re going to become resilient people, we can discover and implement ways to change our thinking.
My brain runs my show. Your brain runs your show. If we want to change our lives by developing resilience in the realm of our mental health, it will take a commitment to retraining our brains. The key to overcoming anxiety, depression, and panic begins when we recognize how our thoughts drive our physiological response.
Our thoughts shape our perspective, our perspective shapes our attitude, and our attitude determines our outcomes.
Overcoming anxious thoughts
Scripture illuminates how we think about our circumstances, and where we choose to place our focus will directly impact how we experience life. To develop a resilient mind, we first must take our thoughts captive: “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Healing the traumatized, anxious, or panicked brain doesn’t have to be complicated. You can take practical steps to retrain your brain. Begin by asking why you are processing information in certain ways and then determine to respond differently. Once you discover your triggers, you can reject the thoughts and feelings that prompt your mind to hijack your body. Then go on to form a plan. A simple set of strategies can help you overcome those thoughts when they return.
Our middle-of-the-night episode with Kennedy marked the beginning of her healing journey. Over the past two years, she has developed a resilient response to keep her heart and mind in a healthy place.
You too, friends, can retrain your brain. You can teach your kids to do this too. How do you start? By recognizing the moments of anxiety, depression, panic, or addiction when they come. Remember what triggers the emotions or behaviors, then determine a plan of attack when those negative emotions and behaviors return.
The payoff will show up when you need it most—even in your darkest hour.
Read more in Building A Resilient Life anywhere books are sold.