In the belly of a fish sea image
Bible Study

Why a panic attack is like being in the belly of a fish

Reading Jonah this week, I was surprised to find what appeared to be a description of a panic attack. It wasn’t, not exactly, but the similarities—and the lessons—easily apply. Yes, a panic attack and time in the belly of a fish have a lot in common.

If you don’t remember the story, God tells Johan to preach salvation to Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t want Nineveh saved. They’re bad people, and his idea of justice doesn’t include their salvation, so he turns and runs, hopping on a boat in Joppa and heading as far from Nineveh as he can get. That’s fairly literal. Joppa is on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, and Tarshish, his destination, is on the far west, about 2500 miles away.

God says Not So Fast, Jonah, and sends a storm. When the boat threatens to sink, Jonah, knowing this is his fault, asks them to throw him overboard to save themselves. Reluctantly they comply. At some point after this God sends a huge fish to swallow him, and he spends three days in there. Thus ends chapter one.

A Strange place to pray

Then in chapter two, Jonah prays from that fish, describing what happened to him. Every time I read this, I think I’ve been there. This is the best description of a panic attack I’ve ever read. I go through this on a regular basis. My panic sounds a lot like what Jonah endured in the sea.

Here’s the passage from Jonah 2, with the emphasis mine:

From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. 2 He said:
“In my distress I called to the LORD,
    and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
    and you listened to my cry.
3 You hurled me into the depths,
    into the very heart of the seas,
    and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
    swept over me.
4 I said, ‘I have been banished
    from your sight;
yet I will look again
    toward your holy temple.’
5 The engulfing waters threatened me, 
    the deep surrounded me;
    seaweed was wrapped around my head.
6 To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
    the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, LORD my God,
    brought my life up from the pit.
7 “When my life was ebbing away,
    I remembered you, LORD,
and my prayer rose to you,
    to your holy temple...
9 But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
    will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
    I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
10 And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

Panicked and drowning

Everything I italicized is exactly how I feel when I have a panic attack. Apparently drowning and panic are more similar than I knew. If you’ve never experienced this but have loved ones who have, remember this when they are in the depths. This is dead on.

First, he says he’s calling to God from deep in the realm of the dead. That’s what my body believes when I have a panic attack. For Jonah, that was pretty literal, but for me, it’s not, and yet my body pays no attention and screams with every ounce of its power that it is about to die, and I need to do something. Now. Please.

Jonah says he was hurled into the depths, currents swirling, breakers crashing over him. He felt he’d been banished, that God had turned away. He sank to the roots of the mountains. Seaweed wrapped around his head. He was trapped in the water and there was no way out.

Not abandoned to the deep

That’s how I feel when I’m in the depths of anxiety, be it an actual panic attack or just those moments when I listen more to my own fear than anything else. I can’t quite figure out which way is up. I want to call to God, but my fears are loud and chaotic, swirling like waves—or like wraiths—all around me, each with its own voice, like the pounding of the sea. Fear is that seaweed, wrapped around me muffling all truth as my cries for help bounce back at me.

Jonah knows this was his fault, and he thinks the sea is his punishment, that God had banished him. I feel that way in the depths, too, that I should do better, be stronger and braver, that here in the swirling sea I deserve to be alone. But God doesn’t abandon his people to the deep. That’s clear all over Scripture. When I’m spinning under the waves, not sure where the surface is, seaweed around my head so I can’t see or move, God is there. Psalm 34 says The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  Being tossed overboard during a storm is a pretty spirit-crushing event, so God was there, close, never abandoning but ushering Jonah to a better way.

The better way… is a fish?

In the belly of a fish

It’s that better way that gets me in this prayer. I realized I had never truly read this passage right. Drowning was the danger. Jonah’s imagery is all about thrashing and sinking into the sea. To pull up a tiny scientific fact, the Mediterranean averages 4900 feet deep. Normal people can dive safely to about 60 feet. In a storm, Jonah easily could have been shoved way, way down there. He could have been hundreds, even thousands of miles from home, sinking into a very, very deep sea.

So, back to the Better Way. In this case, the save was a fish. I never quite realized that before. In my mind, God gave Jonah a one-two punch, a near drowning and then death by fish. But no, that’s not how Jonah sees it. If his prayer happened inside that fish, look at all the non-italicized things he says, things like You brought my life up from the pit and I will look at you in your holy temple. The fish was the save, and it sounds like Jonah knew it. Maybe it was just the utter ridiculousness of the whole thing that let him know he wasn’t going to die in this fish. God had chased him with a storm and a fish, and maybe he thought there was no way God would waste that kind of drama on his death.

It seems to me from this prayer that Jonah was thankful to be in a fish, because it was so much better than drowning in the waves. (It doesn’t entirely make sense to me, because I can’t imagine he could really breathe any better in a fish, but we’ll just trust the words and assume, since it says he prayed and survived, that he prayed and survived, and the fish was a miraculous step toward survival and he knew it. HERE is a cool article on the science and miraculous aspects of this save.)

And then… out of a belly of a fish

At the end of this prayer, when Jonah says he will keep his vows and do what God wants, the fish vomits him up. This is not an elegant ending. I suspect he looked and smelled horrible. Three days in a fish gut couldn’t have been good for his skin. He might not have had any idea where he was. I imagine him lying on a rocky beach, panting, staring at the sky, shocked and amazed that God had done what He’d just done.

Then I imagine him laughing. I mean, would anyone even believe his story? He must have understood what had happened. He had purposely turned from God and run, and God had ignored Jonah’s temper tantrum and shifted the reality of the world just a smidge to safely bring him home. God still loved him, and he knew it. What must he have felt? Humbled, relieved, a little exasperated, and likely very deeply loved.

Panic makes me feel abandoned and thrown overboard, but God is in the waves, and He brings the fish, and He’s on the beach.

I had a panic attack in the middle of the night not long ago. Usually a long, drawn-out attack sends me outside, where I pace in the dark. My husband got up with me, and we sat at the patio table and didn’t say much. I never know what to say when I’m like that, and neither does he. It’s enough that he was sitting in the darkness, listening to the tree frogs, waiting with me.

rocky beach
Photo by Sixteen Miles Out, Unsplash

Waiting for the beach

The attack would end. I knew it and he knew it, so we waited. Together. It helps not to wait alone. That was the fish God sent me, the part where I didn’t have to be alone in the dark. With my husband across the table, the sea was quieter. My body still insisted things were perilous, but with my husband’s presence safety felt like a possibility. I hadn’t quite gotten the save, not like I wanted, but I was enough in my right mind to enjoy the company and to believe that the beach was on its way.

At that point I was able to calm enough to remember God was there, at my side, packed into that fish with me. The presence of my husband reminded me of that Other Presence that will never leave. Panic makes me feel abandoned and thrown overboard, but God is in the waves, and he brings the fish, and he’s on the beach.

Why the belly of a fish?

I don’t know why God sometimes chooses fish. Couldn’t the storm have ended and another boat come for him? Couldn’t he have miraculously popped back to Nineveh? Why can’t the saves be easy and elegant? Why do we sometimes see half the answer, some of the path, feel some comfort away from the sea but still face days in the belly of a smelly fish? God chooses the strangest, most circuitous routes to grab our hearts and souls and gain our trust, and I need to look for those smelly fish as the rescues and the blessings that they are.

Even if I ever conquer anxiety, I might not conquer panic attacks. (I wrote about that here.) They seem to have a mind and life of their own. But I’m not alone. I am training myself to listen to God’s voice and feel his presence from the depths–finding company, reading the Bible, looking for other ways to grab at the unlikely fish that’s heading for the surface to spit me on the beach.

Panic isn’t elegant. It’s humbling. It’s exhausting. But God is there, holding me, and when it’s over, I know I am loved, because I have made it, once again, to the beach. Maybe covered in fish spit and not entirely sure of my location, but that just makes me cling tighter to the God who loves me and lets me bask in the sunrises and sunsets over the water to see his deep, deep care for me.


    • Jill

      Yes! I hear that voice, too. I hope that the longer I look into the Word for the voice of the Shepherd, the less this little lamb will listen to the crazy voices in the wind calling me to run and hide in the brambles. Definitely a work in progress.

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