The inspiration for this article comes from a two day anxiety marathon I recently experienced that culminated into a panic attack that presented while I was at work. It felt like every inhale was not enough, and I needed to think about taking every breath rather than just breathing naturally. I have been dealing with long term COVID symptoms, and one of my first thoughts was that my lungs had finally started failing. My own heartbeat didn’t feel right. This line of thinking made my panic attack worse. I shuffled to my office and sent out a Teams message to my coworkers: I was having trouble breathing and my heart was racing, and I wanted to let people know something was wrong in case I needed help. I trust my coworkers, and I knew if I needed to get to a hospital they would get me there.
As I sat down at my desk my mind was moved so rapidly between different thoughts about what could be wrong with me. I used my phone camera to see if I was looking pale, if I could see a sign that I was losing oxygen. I looked scared but not pale, and I didn’t feel cold. As I wondered whether I should lay down or call someone to come check on me before my heart or lungs or both gave out, I suddenly connected the dots.
I was having a panic attack.
This wasn’t my first panic attack, but the interesting thing about panic attacks is that I never seem to remember what they feel like when I experience one. Mine have a tendency to appear without any major triggers, start off with breathing difficulties, and escalate to a fast heartbeat and a racing mind. And for a long time they have been very, very hard to fight back.
I wanted my panic attack to stop. I wanted to calm down. My mind, unfortunately, was already moving way too fast for me to get a hold of my thoughts. In this fight or flight mode I found it almost impossible to convince myself, to convince my body, that I didn’t need to get ready to fight for my survival, and that I wasn’t dying. In the midst of a panic attack my mind feels like a car hydroplaning during a storm. I couldn’t slow down, I couldn’t see where I was going, I couldn’t hold onto something to stabilize myself. I was spiraling. I tried breathing exercises to no avail. I tried to tell myself to calm down, which never works but I always try it anyways. And I tried to pray, but I couldn’t find the words and couldn’t construct anything that made sense. All I could think of was “God help me, God help me.”
Somehow, my panicked survival-driven mind and my talent for retaining random trivia joined forces and I remembered reading about a song that was supposed to be the most relaxing song in the world. Weightless by Marconi Union was a collaborative project between musicians and sound therapists designed to slow the heart rates of listeners, lower stress, and reduce blood pressure. Perfect combination to come down from a panic attack.
I hope this helps other people but I played it and it did nothing for me. I tried to match my breathing to the beat of the music, slowly breathing in and out, but my mind was sprinting around. I needed something to ground me, something I could focus on.
If music can help change the state of my mood, and prayer can change the state of my spirit, I needed to find something that would help me experience a combination of both. Something that would help me tone down the physical symptoms of a panic attack and the spiritual chaos that panic attacks can unleash. The answer, to me, was a hymn. Isn’t a hymn a prayer combined with music? Couldn’t I listen to music to ease my physical symptoms and lean on lyrics to serve as a prayer?
I’m an archivist, not a scientist. I’m not 100% sure how music affects people physically but I know that music can have a dramatic effect on people. And I know how powerful prayer can be. With these ideas in mind, I’ve curated a list of songs that sound calming and peaceful, and have lyrics that anyone can read or sing along to.
My recommendations, as one who has used these songs repeatedly and to pretty good success to bring myself down from panic attacks and lower my anxiety, is to match your breathing to the rhythm of the music. These songs are slow, and forcing yourself to breathe slowly can help stabilize emotions. I also recommend reading along to the lyrics, focusing on the words and messages of these songs, and if possible sing along to them. When it’s hard for me to come up with the right words to pray, singing and speaking out these lyrics help me reach a point where I can actually pray on my own. This music helps me address the physical and spiritual aspects of panic attacks and anxiety, and I hope and pray they help others as well.
This is what I listened to over and over while I came down from my panic attack. I sang along, and eventually cried along, to the hymns that seemed to speak directly to my panic-stricken mind.
“Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness…all I have needed your hand has provided.” Even as I was gasping for air, He was faithful. As I sang these lyrics it felt like I wasn’t alone, I was joining the Maverick City Music team and the unknown numbers of the faithful who have sung this hymn in praising the faithfulness of God in the face of their trials.
“‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus” never made me cry until I sang it during my panic attack. For me, my anxiety stems from a lack of trust in many things. I don’t trust the economy, I don’t trust my own health anymore, I constantly question my trust in my loved ones, and I have trouble at times trusting in God. But this song, in the context of my anxiety, is both a cry for help for “grace to trust You more” and a defiant anthem against my lack of trust in God. Over and over I sang, ‘I trust Him, I trust Him’, until the worries that flooded my mind and made me spiral were drowned out in worship.
“It is well with My Soul” was very strange to sing while I was freaking out in my office. My soul was clearly not feeling well. But this song acknowledges that sorrows may crash into my life. My sorrow was acknowledged and that’s not something very common in a lot of contemporary music. I kept singing that it was well with my soul, and as the music gently soared I started to believe that it was well.
These are children’s songs, but we are all children of God and frankly when confronting a panic attack we need to be willing to use whatever tools we can find. This first song is from a stage play for a Psalty the Singing Songbook that I saw as a kid.
Let me be blunt for a moment. I grew up watching Psalty. I had a Psalty the Songbook Bible, complete with little comics about this blue book with a face and his family and friends going about doing the Lord’s work. However, and I say this with complete respect to the concept of Psalty and his creators, Psalty and his dog look like sleep paralysis demons and I can’t in good faith recommend that anyone currently trying to get themselves down from a panic attack should look at Psalty videos. Not right now. Save it for when you, reader, are at peace and during full daylight.
All that being said, softly singing “I cast all my cares upon You” has helped ease the burden of so many trials I’ve faced in life. And I think listening to this cover and singing along will help. If casting all our cares upon God were easy then this article wouldn’t be needed, but it’s not easy. But for me, listening to this song served as a reminder that God can carry my worries and cares. I can let them go. I can breathe.
“Jesus Loves Me” is a song that states over and over one of the central parts of the gospel: Jesus loves me. He loves me. He loves me with all of my flaws and bad decisions, He loves me when I care for others and when I harm them, He loves me when I have success and when I have nothing. It’s often written off as childish, but when it feels like everything is crashing around you, remembering that Jesus loves us is such an immense comfort.
I honestly use this song more as a way to help with breathing exercises and yoga/stretching. Hearing a song that includes lyrics like “the atmosphere is changing now, for the Spirit of the Lord is here” helps move the mind and spirit to a more restful place. I breathe in during the lyrics “the atmosphere is changing now, for the Spirit of the Lord is here”, hold my breath until the next “the Spirit of the Lord is here”, exhale until the next “Spirit of the Lord is here”, and repeat as needed. Counting makes me feel too clinical, so to me this was a good replacement.
A lifelong friend (who sings professionally) introduced me to this song and the timing was almost as astounding as Jonathan’s voice. This song calls for a blessing over hard times, that struggles and difficulties bring us (or drive us) closer to God and that our “bad days prove that God is good”. There are countless blogs, podcasts, books, and preachings that explain how even in our darkest hours God is good. This is a concept that I have had a hard time understanding. I am fortunate that during the lowest points of my life my spirit still cries out “God is good”, but during a panic attack it’s so hard to remember even this truth. When I hear this song it’s like Jonathan is singing over me and reminding me that God is good, always. Even when I’m curled over my desk gasping for breath, God is good. Even when my mind is moving too fast for me to make sense of anything, God is good. Even when the storm of grief comes, even when the sorrows come, even when the pain comes, God is good.
This song comes from an unknown writer. Some claims about its origins during WWII float around the internet, but there are no concrete historical or contemporary references that corroborate those stories. It most likely originated as a poem by an anonymous author that was passed around until someone added lore and music to it.
This is the final recommendation I have and, frankly, it’s not the most uplifting song. But sometimes the only way to work through sorrow is to feel it fully and acknowledge it. I don’t believe God is ever silent, but sometimes it feels like I can’t hear Him. I would describe the tone of this song to be one of defiant sorrow. In the midst of what seems like silence, I still believe. When the miracle I want does not come to pass, I still believe. When I can’t rebuke my panic attack away, when I can’t drop my anxiety off at a revival service and never deal with it again, I still believe in God.
I hope and pray these songs may bring comfort and peace to others.
Priscilla Escobedo is an archivist working in North Texas. Much of her professional work revolves around preserving and presenting BIPOC history in Texas. She enjoys reading about history (clearly), antique shopping, and trying new restaurants and recipes.