My sister Nell braved freezing temperatures to attend a ‘Sunrise Service’ on Easter Sunday. “So what?” you may think but, for Nell, it wasn’t just worrying that she might sleep through the alarm set for 5am that kept her awake, but a desperate longing that she would not only get there but be able to stay for the whole time. Going to church, or indeed anywhere, is a challenge of Everest proportions for Nell, who suffers from severe panic attacks.

For years Nell has struggled to do everyday things like popping out to the shops or going for coffee with a friend, trapped in a cage with invisible bars that takes every ounce of her strength, physical and mental, to leave. Before the pandemic probably most of us had little idea what such a situation must feel like. Now, feelings of being trapped where we are overwhelmed by frustration, hopelessness and, yes, fear is something most of us can identify with. Hopefully this gives us fresh compassion and insight into the lives of those forced to live like this for months or even years. The difference is most of us recognise there is an end in sight – for people like Nell there’s no such certainty.

Panic attacks make conversations almost impossible – you find you’re nervously gabbling at breakneck speed or beset by brain fog so you either get your words mixed up or sit in a paralysed silence. They cause heavy sweats, a pounding heartbeat, faintness, difficulty breathing, an awful pressure in your head that builds and builds until you can’t stand it anymore. What should be a sociable drink in a pub with friends or a nice meal out with your family turns into a nightmare and the only thing that helps is closing your front door and letting life go on without you.

Light in darkness

For most of us the pandemic has closed our lives down, but for people like Nell it opened doors because everything had to go online. For the first time in many months, she felt no different from everyone else and, best of all, she was able to come to our church every week even though she lived over 100 miles away.

But now churches are opening again, and I feel conflicted. Our church is now live-streaming in-person services, currently with limited numbers, but soon we will be back to capacity. Our church family drawing back together is a real joy but where does that leave Nell?

Journeying through fear

Even for someone who doesn’t have panic attacks, going into a church building where you don’t know anyone can be daunting. For someone like Nell just getting through the door is an ordeal. That’s why I felt so proud of her for getting along to the ‘Sunrise Service’ and it was lovely to see how God honoured her desire to meet with him. There were only around 20 people so it wasn’t too overwhelming and she knew some of the songs from worship at our church, which helped her feel at home. Amazingly, she was able to stay for the whole time; something that would normally be impossible. As she celebrated Jesus’ resurrection, she sensed something new stirring inside her; a sense that a life that had been hidden away for so long could be restored and healed.

It’s just a first step, but such a significant one and I pray that now the ice is broken she will go again. I also pray for us as Christians – that God will help us notice people hovering at the door of our churches who struggle to find the courage to step inside and that we will reach out to them with a smile, a kind word or an invitation to sit beside us. I think it’s so sad that people like my sister often feel invisible. They’re not invisible to Jesus and shouldn’t be to us.

How can I help?

Nobody wants to have a panic attack! The worst thing you can do is imply that the person would be fine if they just had more willpower or faith. Always be gentle and compassionate. Here are some helpful simple tips.

· Don’t pressurise someone to do more than they can cope with. Take small steps.

· During a panic attack, stay with the person, stay calm and reassure them it will be OK.

· Let them talk about how it feels without offering advice or judging.

· Ask what you can do to help – everyone is different so don’t assume anything.

· Most importantly, be faithful in praying for them and with them.

Additional help

Emerging research shows that many people’s mental health has been affected by the lockdowns. If you have begun to experience panic attacks yourself, please do contact your GP for advice.

Christian charity Mind and Soul Foundation has some really helpful resources about mental ill health. Co-founder Rev Will van der Hart has written specifically (and very personally) about panic attacks.

If you have been affected by the issues in this article, whether personally or trying to support someone you love, and would like to speak to someone, Premier Lifeline is a confidential telephone helpline offering a listening ear, emotional and spiritual support from a Christian perspective, prayer and signposting. Premier Lifeline is open 9am to midnight every day of the year: 0300 111 0101.

Regular contributor Clare Blake lives and worships in funky Bristol. She loves writing features to inspire and encourage Christian women deeper into God.