GraceKepler asked a question about Panic Attacks at Mass on our old discussion forum and received some insightful answers from the Coming Home Network community. We’ve curated the topic for you here. Feel free to continue discussion in the comment box below.
Hi all, I wasn’t really sure where to post this so I hope here is okay.
Every time I go to Mass I end up having a panic attack. I don’t think my pulse has ever gone below 100 BPM in a Catholic church. I keep trying to go, both alone and with friends, but it never gets any better, and I’m ready to give up and take it as a sign that God doesn’t want me in the Catholic Church.
David W. Emery
You are not alone. Others on the forum have had this same reaction. You were raised Evangelical and were fed a constant diet of anti-Catholic ideology. This instilled a mortal fear in you concerning anything Catholic. Now you are actually inside a Catholic church, trying to attend Mass. Your mind may insist that everything is all right, but your subterranean emotions are not listening. They get all uptight, the adrenalin is pumping, and your heart is racing because of your lifelong fears. The only cure I know of is to tough it out. When you get used to being at Mass and not being struck by lightning, the fears will calm down, and you will be OK.
Many years ago I decided I wanted to go to a Catholic Easter sunrise Mass while my family was still sleeping. We had discovered John Michael Talbot’s music, which was largely sung Catholic prayer.
When I arrived early at the church, I parked my car and began approaching the doors of the church. About halfway there, I started to feel fear and resistance, so I turned around and headed back to my car. But I realized I was dealing with a 500-year-old built in prejudice. It was almost ingrained in my DNA. On my second approach, the same thing happened but I came closer. Finally, on the third try, I made it. It was a number of years later before I converted.
I have been a Catholic for eight years now and have no regrets. Sometimes I have thankful tears running down my face in Mass for all the graces and much closer relationship with Jesus I am receiving through the Catholic Church.
Sometimes smaller steps are necessary. You aren’t going to Mass, you are just going to sit at the back near the door and observe. No commitment there at all, and you can give yourself the option to leave at any time. You can walk out the door and then have a breath of fresh air, then walk back in again. Perhaps if you just ease yourself in that way, with no mandates that you MUST stay and you MUST participate, then you can psyche yourself out a bit and actually train your emotions to back off, because you have given yourself the option to not stay.
Sometimes, when we are really reacting rather than responding to a situation, we have to actually talk ourselves down. The rational part of our brain has to talk to our racing heart and say, “Hey, I know what you are feeling right now, but you also know that this is rather silly. Nothing is going to happen. I can take you outside if you like, so we can breathe and get some relief, but then you and I are going to walk back in, even if we are just going to stand in the narthex. You are OK, my dear. There is nothing to be afraid of here. We will be just fine.” I used to have panic attacks, too, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, and once I understood what they were, then self-talking would help me to calm myself down. When we convert, the rational side and the emotional side sometimes don’t actually convert at the same time, so we have to “hold our own hand,” so to speak, until the emotional side just calms down a bit. Lol.
Are you attending Mass on Sunday instead of going to your usual church? Perhaps it would be helpful to attend your usual church on Sunday, and then attend an evening Mass during the week. Most parishes will have a Saturday or Sunday evening Mass. Ours has a Latin Mass on Wednesday nights. It could be that one of these other Masses will cause less of a reaction in you. It could be a good start.
Have you read much on the Mass? Scott Hahn has an excellent book, The Lamb’s Supper, which shows how the Mass is reflected in the book of Revelation.
I point this out for this reason – and I hope this doesn’t make things worse. The Mass is a real piece of heaven, which comes down to earth. The sacrifice of the Mass is the very same sacrifice that Jesus gave on the cross. When you participate in the Mass, you are literally giving the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood and body, with the priest, to God the Almighty Father. Think of that. You are literally handing over to God the sacrifice of His Son. It isn’t something “spiritual” or “metaphorical,” it is the real presence, the real body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ in the Eucharist. I just want to say that a panic attack might not be so inappropriate. It’s both the most terrifying, and the most wonderful, precious thing you can do on this earth. I think if my heart understood what my head knows, my BPMs would never go below 100 in Mass either.
Ask Jesus to walk with you and be at your side. Pray, “Jesus, please walk with me.” And, ask the Lord to give you peace and give you the grace to find peace at Mass.
I can really identify with this. I was brought up Presbyterian and anti-Catholic. Even though I married a Catholic and had lots of positive experiences associated with knowing a Catholic family (I really had a head start), I experienced a lot of anxiety when I began to attend Mass some 14 years into my marriage! The anxiety began on the walk there. I felt as if I was wading through my anti-Catholic prejudices. Sometimes I was okay once I got there, and sometimes the anxiety just got worse.
I’ve now been a Catholic four years, and at times I have felt incredible peace about being at Mass. At other times, the anxiety has come back. Sometimes I’ve had to work through issues related to my decision to become Catholic and how that’s affected my relationships, and this has helped the anxiety. It’s not been easy, but it’s been worth it. Lately, I’ve begun praying two times from the Divine Office (usually Morning and Evening Prayer) every day, and I’ve noticed that my overall anxiety (about Mass and other things) has dropped. (For the Divine Office, see http://universalis.com/.)
Grace, I am praying that the anxiety diminishes and the Mass can fill you with peace.
While I didn’t have anxiety attacks connected with the Mass (and having had a few non-faith related ones, I know how disturbing they can be), I did experience a somewhat baffling array of emotions that it took a while to identify when I first started going to Mass. I blamed a lot of it on my confusion and frustration for a while, until I was able to discern that the strongest and most unknown emotion to me was actually a longing for Christ. Please stick with it in some form, even if it means back of the church (husband and I camped out in the back row for a long time) or going to church to pray during non-Mass times until you can unravel the emotions leading to the attacks. There may be a hidden blessing of insight to learn.
I can relate to this as well. Not because of of anti-Catholic upbringing, but I think because I really feel that I am not part of the community, and I am afraid of doing something wrong. This summer, I managed to go to Mass every Sunday, and the first two or three Sundays, my heart was beating like crazy and I almost don’t remember anything from the Mass. The thing that helped was to continue to go there. Now it’s more or less OK to go there, but the idea of going to a different church makes the anxiety come back.