Colossal understatement: Work can be an unending stress fest. Whether your job is to communicate to hangry, demanding, drunken customers that an oven just broke and their food will be further delayed; or to ferry patients through a chaotic ER; or to manage other people's money; or to drive perpetually late commuters to appointments; or carting priceless artworks from point A to point B — every career comes with its own special set of anxiety triggers. And for people who get panic attacks, those stressors can make navigating any professional setting feel like navigating a mine field. Stopping a panic attack at work can be difficult business — especially if you try to hide the situation from your colleagues. It can be done, though.
But before we get into all that, what even is a panic attack, and how do you know if you're having one?
"After experiencing a stimulus that the brain interprets as a stressor, the brain releases neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) to the amygdala, which plays a role in emotions like fear, and hypothalamus, which connects the brain with the endocrine, circulatory, and other body systems," Erika Martinez, Psy.D. and founder of Miami Shrinks. "In turn, the body's sympathetic system gets activated, triggering the 'fight or flight' response to prepare the body to respond to the stimulus. Part of that response is the release of adrenaline and cortisol," and cortisol — the stress hormone — sets off a whole host of symptoms, including elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness, dry mouth, blurred vision, trembling, and potentially also nausea, numbness, hot flashes, and physical pain in the abdomen, head, or chest.
"Panic attacks ensue when someone develops a fear of this process from a past experience," Martinez says. "When they start to have similar symptoms, they panic, recalling the previous occasion when this happened to them."
Often debilitating, panic attacks may leave those who get them wondering how to cope — especially if fear of one striking in the workplace presents as a stressor all on its own. What you need, experts agree, is a game plan: A set of steps to be taken if a panic attack creeps up while you sit at your desk. Here are seven tips to stop a panic attack if you get one at work.