There’s no right place to have a panic attack. While we’d love to completely erase them from our life, sometimes we have to deal with them in unlikely places.
Having a panic attack at work is one of these situations that everyone could do without. It’s a frightening and vulnerable experience that’s challenging enough on its own, let alone in front of an audience.
Going through a panic attack at work can make you feel embarrassed, but there’s no shame in dealing with a difficult time. However, there are some ways to help you cope with panic attacks in your workplace and beyond.
What’s a panic attack?
Let’s start with the basics. By definition, a panic attack is a sudden and intense episode of overwhelming fear or anxiety that can last for several minutes, usually up to 20.
Panic attacks can be debilitating and start to interfere with someone's daily life. They can also happen as a “one-off” if you’re going through a particularly stressful time.
Recognizing the symptoms of a panic attack at work
How do you know if you’re having a panic attack at work? The first step is to identify the main symptoms. They can include:
Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
Trembling or shaking
Shortness of breath or feeling like you are choking
Chest pain or discomfort
Nausea or abdominal distress
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Numbness or tingling sensations
A feeling of impending doom or a sense of unreality
These symptoms can be scary, and you might feel like you’re losing control, about to faint, or worse, that you’re having a heart attack. It can be very distressing to experience a panic attack at work because it’s a formal environment where you’re not necessarily used to feeling vulnerable.
Remember you’re not alone, and lots of people struggle with their mental health. While it can feel embarrassing to go through a panic attack at work, it’s important to feel able to talk about mental health at work without judgment.
What’s causing panic attacks?
Are you experiencing panic attacks before work or during the day? Are you really stressed out at work right now? You might be feeling overwhelmed with everything you have to do or maybe something else is going on at work that’s really difficult.
If you identify a pattern where they keep happening in similar situations, it could mean that it’s work that’s causing your panic attacks through the stress and anxiety it induces.
However, other various causes also tend to be linked with panic attacks, especially if they seem to be coming out of the blue. Potential causes can include:
Experiencing traumatic or very stressful life events
Panic disorder, other anxiety disorders or depression
Problems with drugs or alcohol
Our personality and the way we tend to think about different things
Medical conditions such as low blood pressure, heart problems or the side effects of medications
5 tips to deal with panic attacks at work
“I had a panic attack at work, what should I do?” Start by identifying the telltales of an upcoming panic attack and try the following tips to help manage it.
Take a break
If you feel a panic attack coming on, take a break from your work. It won’t help you to try and “work through it”, and might increase your stress levels further.
Excuse yourself to the restroom or step outside for a few minutes. You might want to ask a trusted colleague to come with you if you think you’ll need some support.
Try controlled breathing
Controlled breathing can help you ride out the symptoms of anxiety during a panic attack. Try this exercise if you’re experiencing panic attacks before work or during the day:
Breathe in through your nose calmly and slowly. You can count to four in your head - 1, 2, 3, 4. Try to make sure your stomach is expanding with air first, before your chest. Don’t try too hard to expand your chest.
Breathe out through your mouth calmly and slowly. Again, you can count to four in your head - 1, 2, 3, 4.
Pause for a few seconds after each breath and keep repeating until you feel calm, this will likely take a few minutes.
It can help to practice controlled breathing when you are already feeling calm outside of work, daily if you can. This will give you space to get used to doing it before trying it out when you’re actually feeling anxious.
Use positive self-talk
Negative thoughts can worsen your anxiety. Use positive self-talk to calm yourself down. Tell yourself that you are safe and that the panic attack will pass.
It can help to write down some positive affirmations on a sticky note or in your work notebook to read when you start to feel your stress levels growing. For example:
“As I breathe, I feel calmer”
“I am in control”
“This feeling is temporary”
“This moment will pass and so will my anxiety”
Grounding techniques can help you feel more present and connected to your surroundings. Focus on your senses and name things you see, hear, smell, and touch.
You can use the 5-4-3-2-1 method to help you feel more present in the moment. Breathe in and out slowly and identify:
5 things you can see
4 things you can touch
3 things you can hear
2 things you can smell
1 thing you can taste
If you feel comfortable, seek support from a trusted colleague or supervisor. If work is causing your panic attacks through the stress and anxiety it triggers, you might want to discuss it with your manager to adjust your workload accordingly.
Want to tell someone “I had a panic attack at work” and get support while staying anonymous? If you’re still feeling embarrassed about your panic attacks at work and want to share and get advice without going to a colleague, join TalkLife Workplace to connect with a global, 100% confidential community of like-minded professionals.
If panic attacks are an ongoing issue for you, you may also want to consider getting ongoing mental health support.