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.
1. Find An Ally
While your initial impulse may be to hide your panic attacks from colleagues for fear of judgment, Greg Kushnick, Psy. D, a New York-based psychologist, tells Bustle it's really better to find an ally.
"Have the courage to tell someone close to you at work that you're suffering from panic attacks," he says "It helps to know that someone is keeping an eye on you, especially when you cue them that you're panicking. Panic attacks often involve a lot of secrecy and shame, which can be diffused by telling someone you trust."
Kushnick recommends choosing a moment when you're not mid-attack to let your work buddy know. Or, if you can't pinpoint a person you'd feel comfortable telling (or if you work remotely), have a friend or family member on-call for emergencies.
2. Scope Out A Quiet Space
Get yourself out of the stressful situation and head for a place that makes you feel safe. "Some people may feel best alone in a bathroom stall, while others may prefer their work cubicle," Martinez says. "Some may want to take a break and head over to a nearby park or coffee shop. Try to have a location (or person) in mind before a panic attack so that when one happens, you can go to this place or reach out to this person."
"Repeat a calming mantra to yourself" once you're there, Kushnick advises, and use the quiet to focus your brain on something that slows it down.
3. Try Breathing Exercises
"Focus on your breathing to slow down your breath," Kushnick says. "Some people enlist the help of apps like Calm to disconnect from the world and meditate."
Martinez also suggests slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths: "Inhale over four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale over four seconds, hold for four seconds, and repeat until heart rate slows and you feel calmer." But, as Kushnick notes, deep breathing can worsen panic attacks in certain people, so find you rhythm before one hits. "The more you can practice deep diaphragmatic breathing before a panic attack, the better able you'll be to access this skills when you're having one. I ask clients to practice three times daily, about 10-15 repetitions."
4. Find A Soothing Object
Does your workplace hand out stress balls or other corporate tchotchkes from time to time? Keep a few on your desk, in case of emergency.
"Direct all of your attention toward one object you hold in your hands that grounds you," Kushnick says. "Feel the texture of the object. Maintain your focus on that one object until you feel calmer."
5. Comfort Yourself
Anxious thoughts, Marianne Clyde, LMFT, tells Bustle, "feed on each other and are nonconstructive and unconscious, making matters worse." Your body, she says, believes those thoughts, so it's important to calm your brain as you settle into controlled breaths.
Talk to yourself, she recommends, "As if talking to and comforting a small child: 'OK, now this has happened before and you came through it fine.' 'All that's happening is that your body thinks it's in danger. It's not. You're safe. You know exactly what to do. Just breathe. This will be better in a few minutes. No reason to panic. You've got this.'"
6. Check In With Yourself
As you begin to relax, Martinez advises checking in with yourself. "Are you thirsty, hungry, over-caffeinated? Taking new medications? Seek to remedy these by having some water or eating a healthy snack. In the case of taking new medications, let your prescribing doctor know." If you can find triggers or pinpoint some contributing factors, you can mitigate them going forward.
7. Give Yourself Perspective
Panic attacks can terrify people, in part because they sometimes make us feel like this might actually be the end. That's why it helps to remind yourself of the situation's reality in so far as it's possible for you to do that. "A lot of people have the automatic thought, 'Oh my god, I'm going to die!'" Martinez says. "Remind yourself that panic attacks don't kill people."
Cleave to the knowledge that this is just a thing that happens to you, and this too shall pass. In the meantime, don't accept anyone trying to oust you from the solo bathroom before you've sufficiently settled yourself down.