Christian author Craig Denison, who pens the popular devotional First15 reaching 1.4 million millennials daily, opened up about how the global COVID-19 pandemic has heightened his own struggle with anxiety and offered practical advice on what believers and churches can do to help those suffering from panic attacks.
In a recent blog post, "I’m a Christian author, and I keep having panic attacks,” the author admitted that he’s has had five panic attacks since March. Although he said he felt like a “phony” as a leader because of his struggles, Denison decided to be transparent because he knew he was not alone.
According to a 2020 study released by Anxiety and Depression Association of America, an estimated 31% of all adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their life.
Denison, son of a pastor, releases a daily devotional which guides over a million believers into a new experience with God’s presence every day. He and his wife, Rachel, are also worship leaders at Denison Ministries. He is now using his influence to help others suffering from the surge of worry and concern in today’s world.
The following is an edited transcript of The Christian Post’s interview with Denison where the author candidly shares of his battles, reveals why he believes panic attacks are so prevalent today and offers tips for Christians and leaders on how to navigate anxiety.
Christian Post: What inspired you to be so transparent and write "I’m a Christian author, and I keep having panic attacks?”
Denison: One of the most powerful ways I grow as a human and as a child of God is having an opportunity to hear the lived-experience of others. With so many believers struggling with anxiety, stress, and even panic attacks in these uncommon days, I was hoping to simply bring peace and edification to other believers like me. You can love God wholeheartedly, be pursuing Him, even leading other believers in a pursuit of God, and still struggle. None of us are perfect. All of us are in need. And it's in the declaration of that need that God meets us most powerfully with His unconditional love and peaceful presence.
CP: Why do you think there is such a stigma against the thought of being a Christian and having a panic attack?
Denison: As believers, I think we wrongly carry an expectation of perfection. With all of God's promises, and lengths He's gone to for us, I think we wrongly expect our lives and the lives of our fellow believers to always be thriving. But the practice of our faith, even something like the receiving and embodying of peace isn't a practice of perfection, but a willingness to keep showing up in the good and bad with faith, hope, and love.
CP: Is a panic attack a lack of faith? Why or why not?
Denison: For me, nothing about my experience with panic attacks seem related to a lack or abundance of faith. Life gets tough sometimes. This year has been hard on all of us. For me specifically, I've learned through panic attacks that I belong to about 15% of the population that have a slightly different brain chemistry than the other 85%. My mind is simply highly sensitive to stimulation and reaches a level of overwhelm sooner than the majority of people. It's through an abundance of faith that I can experience God's grace and love even in moments that don't align with what I believe to be God's perfect hope for us in eternity.
CP: Why do you think the younger generations are suffering so much from anxiety?
Denison: Every day our technology brings us face to face with the suffering and depravity of our world. From social unrest to the pandemic, to an economic downfall, to political and faith division, we're consuming more stressful content than we could have imagined possible. When polled, even working adults stretched across six continents said that they were stressed more often than not. As a society, stress really has become our new normal. We live as if peace is for the best of moments, not something to be hoped for or expected.
As younger generations consume more and more media, and make space for less and less of those practices that produce peace, an epidemic of anxiety will be the result.
CP: What are some things people should do when experiencing that form of intense anxiety?
Denison: When I'm experiencing a panic attack, I try first to allow my emotions and feelings to come as opposed to suppressing them. I try to choose not to be overwhelmed additionally by the fact that I'm having an attack, but to acknowledge that my experience is valid and real and that it will subside. From there I like to find a dark, quiet place, where I can lay down and close my eyes until I regain some sense of normalcy. I've had times wherein about 15 minutes I feel like I can function normally, all the way to a sense of being on edge for the better part of a day. But validating my experience and choosing to think of myself gently and kindly, the way I believe my heavenly Father sees me, has been incredibly helpful.
CP: How can family members, the church and others support someone that experiences panic attacks?
Denison: With my wife, Rachel, and my two young boys, they know to simply allow me to have some space when a panic attack comes. Rachel treating me gently and kindly during this season has been such a sweet response that has sincerely brought us closer as a couple.
For the church, I would recommend some teaching around the current societal experience with stress and anxiety combined with some grace. Allow for the sharing of some lived experience before jumping to applications and answers. As vital and important as spiritual disciplines are, don't simply put at odds your congregation's tough experiences with biblical answers. Allow for time to process, to journey towards peace. Normalize the daily work of practicing peace, with bumps in that road from time to time. Encourage therapy and counseling. And see anxiety and stress as a major societal problem that deserves an ongoing and concerted effort from the church staff.
The last thing I would say is that the work in churches needs to begin with leaders self-assessing, and helping their staff assess their own stress levels. Church leadership is often documented as one of the most stressful jobs someone can have. We have to change the level of inner abundance within church work if we're going to be able to meaningfully engage in helping our congregants find inner abundance for themselves.
CP: What steps can someone take to help avoid getting overwhelmed in these trying times?
Denison: I now begin almost every day with a journal, simply checking in with myself. Processing through questions like "How am I feeling today?" "What is my body telling me?" And then inviting God into the answers to those questions has been incredibly helpful. I would also sincerely encourage someone struggling with feeling overwhelmed to find a counselor or therapist and to also find safe relationships you can be open and vulnerable with.
CP: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Denison: Every day we release free guides to God's presence with a time of worship, reading, self-reflection, and prayer. If you're wrestling with feeling overwhelmed and stressed in these uncommon days and would like to have a guide to a daily experience with God, you can go to First15.org to sign up for free.