Can pastors have panic attacks?

Can pastors have panic attacks? Well, the answer is yes, obviously. Perhaps a more accurate question would be, “Should pastors have panic attacks?” That was the question running through my mind. Why did this happen to me? Over the years, I had preached several times that anxiety was sinful. Scripture explicitly commands us not to be anxious (Philippians 4:6; Matthew 6:25, 31). I had even spent the past year preaching through Hebrews 11, where we saw time and again that fear provides the context for faith. So, any man of God should not be overcome with fear (or anxiety) but should rather overcome fear with faith.

Initially, because I had never experienced a panic attack, I thought I was having a stroke. That would have been acceptable to me. A stroke, after all, is only a physical issue. But after finding out that it was only a panic attack, to be honest, I was kind of embarrassed. It means that I had been unable to deal with my anxiety. I’m a pastor, after all! I’m supposed to be a man of faith. I should be full of the peace of God.

So why did this happen? The first answer is the humbling realization that Pastors are People Too. Pastors are human. That means they have limitations. In fact, they have many limitations. In my pride, I think I denied some of these limitations and attempted to be superhuman instead of being fully human. I came to discover that the theological doctrine of the hypostatic union of Christ is very significant. The hypostatic union is the term theologians use to express the union of Christ’s human and divine natures. In other words, Jesus was not only fully divine; he was also fully human. Interestingly, at times, pastors are not allowed to be fully human. What does that mean? Well, it relates to a second thing I learned.

I came to the conclusion that there was a tremendous amount of stress (at least for what I can handle) that I had been suppressing rather than acknowledging and dealing with. A friend of mine recommended a book called When the Body Says No, and I found it tremendously helpful in understanding my situation. The basic premise is that stress, if unresolved, will affect our physical health because we are a psychophysical or psychosomatic unity. This was not necessarily a new concept to me, but the book, written by an M.D., details case after case of various illnesses where stress is not the only cause but seems to be a significant contributing factor.

This helped me to realize that I had been stressed but had been suppressing it, and either was not allowing my body to feel it, or I was not paying attention to my body until my body came to a point when it had enough and cried out for attention through vertigo and the panic attack. My experience of vertigo was that my left eye and right eye were seeing different things. My left eye saw a world spinning in circles. My right eye could see the spinning and attempted to hold it steady. This is interesting because that’s how I felt inside. There were so many things going on inside my mind that my world was spinning, but there was a part of me that tried to hold it all together. But it came to a point where I couldn’t hold it together, and that’s how I ended up in the hospital.

For me, this was a huge realization. It was a humbling realization. I came to realize that emotions are real. They should not be suppressed. They should not be denied. Our bodies feel for a reason. Now, we may sometimes feel things for irrational reasons. For example, we may feel anxious because we think we are inadequate to deal with a situation when the truth is that we are more than adequate. But still, whether rational or irrational, feelings are real.

In the past, when counseling someone as a pastor, I would obviously acknowledge the feelings. But I realize there were many times I would jump the gun too quickly in search of the truth. “Oh, you’re feeling anxious? Then let me give you a Bible verse for that.” Pastors can sometimes act like physicians, but instead of prescribing pills, we prescribe Bible verses. “Take these two Bible verses and call me in the morning.” As humans, we need time to process emotions. We usually can’t flip our emotions on and off like a switch. And so instead, I should allow the counselee to sit in their emotions for a while, trying to understand them.

And so why did this panic attack happen? I had not been taking the necessary time to reflect and ask the simple question, “What am I feeling?” I realize that this is actually not an easy question to answer, especially when the feelings are deep and complex. Sometimes it requires much self-examination, the courage to bring up the past, and time. After the panic attack, it became clear to me that I needed time off. And so I took three weeks off. Time to hike alone in the mountains and pray. Time to spend time with my wife who knows me best and is my best counselor. Time to get away to a change of scenery. Time to read. Time to journal.

There are several things that I learned about myself, as well as how to process emotions. Lord willing, I’ll share more in future posts. In the meantime, here is a related Psalm that ministered to my soul:

“For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him. You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah”

Psalm 32:3–7

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