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Pastor Imparts Wisdom for Overcoming Anxiety and Depression

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“My chest started getting so tight and I started shaking,” Shawn Johnson said while describing the acute panic attacks he so often experienced. “I felt like I couldn't breathe and really thought I was going to suffocate. I just remember wishing I would die. Maybe I shouldn’t be a pastor? Maybe I’m just kidding myself?”

As the pastor of Red Rocks Church, one of the fastest growing congregations in Colorado, Shawn Johnson has led thousands to Christ throughout the years. But his calling to ministry was nearly upended due to his troubled upbringing.  

“I've never met my real dad and my mom was a heroin addict,” Shawn said. "She ended up marrying her drug dealer. I just grew up in an abusive, very dysfunctional home to say the least. I don't know that I ever felt loved as far as that like, ‘I’ll take care of you, I’ll protect you,’ kind of way. I don’t think I ever had those feelings. I grew up scared.”

Shawn moved to Los Angeles in his twenties after college hoping to find work in the film industry, but with that came a lifestyle of heavy drug use. Then one of his roommates tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills. Shawn’s reaction was to go out and party with his friends.

“All of a sudden I started having these thoughts that I never had before,” Shawn said. “Thoughts like, ‘What is your life matter? If that was me who'd been in the coma and about to die, all my friends would have done what we did. If I die tomorrow, they won't really care and they’ll keep partying. Does my life have any meaning?’ And for the first time in my life, that day I had a full-on panic attack and I didn't even know what was happening. I was walking around this little apartment and I felt like I was suffocating or having like a heart attack or something. I just remember I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t catch my breath.”

For the next three weeks, Shawn experienced panic attacks daily. They got so bad that he considered committing suicide in the same manner as his roommate.

Shawn recalled thinking, “And then all of a sudden, I started thinking what if Heaven and Hell are real? I don't know how to get into either of them and I don't know where I'm going.”

Shawn frantically called a friend from college who he knew believed in God, asking what would happen after he died. The friend encouraged Shawn to visit him in Illinois. The two went to a church service where the pastor asked if there was anyone who needed to be saved from their circumstances.

“I was just desperate,” Shawn said. “I had drugs in my pocket and walked down to the front. I got down on my knees and I remember just saying, ‘God, I'm sorry.’ That’s all I knew to say. ‘I'm sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ I gave my life to God that day. The panic attacks instantly stopped.”

He ended up moving to Illinois to become an active member of the church.

“I didn't just feel accepted, I kind of felt special,” Shawn said about his experience in the church. “I felt loved. I felt wanted. That's something I had kind of been craving my whole life.”

Shawn committed himself to becoming a pastor and spent the next eight years pursuing that goal. He got married and moved to Denver where he co-founded Red Rocks Church. But as the ministry grew, the pressures began to mount and Shawn’s panic attacks returned.

“I started realizing I have to hide this,” Shawn said. “I was just at my doctor's office and I just got put on anti-anxiety medication. Who's going to want to follow that pastor? For ten years I hid how bad it really was. No one knew the depths of it because I was afraid. So, in my mind, God's probably as disappointed in me as I am. I grew up my whole life wanting to make a dad proud that I never was able to. ‘I had one more shot to have this father-son thing and I’ve blown that too,’ that’s what I thought.”

Then while driving one day, Shawn suddenly had the worst panic attack of his life. He pulled the car over and called his wife. After she got to him, Shawn told her he needed to quit ministry work, but she encouraged him to first seek help from a fellow pastor and friend.

“He said, ‘Shawn, you need to stop blaming yourself and you need to start fighting back,’ Shawn recalled about his meeting with the pastor. “And for the first time in my life, I thought, ‘Wait, is that an option?’ I had always thought, ‘I have anxiety, I have depression, it's how I am. It's how I'll always be. I just got to deal with it.’ And He was the first person that actually told me, ‘No, you don't have to just deal with it. We’re going to start with prayer and worship.’”

Shawn spent the next several weeks listening to worship music and speaking biblical truths over his life – that he did have a purpose and God, his Heavenly Father, did love him even in his brokenness. The panic attacks eventually subsided. And then Shawn went to anti-anxiety counseling, where he confronted the trauma of his youth.

“’Let's talk about what you've been through. Let's actually give yourself permission to feel it. Quit pretending it didn't happen. Let's acknowledge how it hurt and how it's affected you, so, then you can start to forgive it.’ I couldn't believe the freedom I started to experience after doing some of that forgiveness work,” Shawn said.

Shawn began sharing his struggles with his church family. Instead of tossing him aside as he once feared, they embraced him. He now boldly speaks about his journey with anxiety and how God was there to see him through.

“I'm not perfect,” Shawn said. “I don't get that till heaven. I still do deal with anxiety and depression sometimes. I have not been back to that level because I feel like I learned a lot of great things in counseling and I started to learn how to spiritually battle with prayer and with worship. And I share with people, I don't hide it like I used to. I feel like God has put so many people around me that love me and accept me and He's given me this family that I've never deserved and I’m so grateful for it. I want as many people as possible to know that no matter how bad you think it is, that God hasn't forgotten you, He hasn't left you. He's right there in it with you. He does have a plan and He’s working when you can’t see it. He will get you through it. And one of these days you’re going to look back and you’re going to think, ‘Thank God, He brought me through it and now look what I can do because of it.’”

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About The Author

Isaac Gwin

Isaac Gwin joined Operation Blessing in 2013 as a National Media Liaison producing domestic hunger relief stories. He then moved to Israel in 2015 where he spent the next six years as a CBN Features Producer developing stories throughout the Middle East. Now back in the U.S., Isaac continues to produce inspiring, true life stories for The 700 Club.