To put it bluntly, panic attacks are awful. Having a panic attack at work, though, reaches a whole other level of awful, not only because the panic can literally sap you of your ability to do your job, but because it can make you vulnerable in any number of ways, and feeling unsafe or exposed can exacerbate your panic. If you have a panic disorder, you'll likely have to deal with a workplace panic attack. But luckily, there's one key thing to do when you panic at the office — and it's simpler than you may think.
Dr. Joshua C. Klapow, licensed clinical psychologist and host of The Web Radio Show, tells Bustle, "Panic attacks [...] are feelings of overwhelming anxiety, shortness of breath, feeling an immediate need to escape, feeling like you are going to pass out, even feeling like you are going to die." He also says that experiencing panic attacks at work is rare, and that if you're having them, it'll be helpful to take steps to see a mental health professional to help you manage them.
Like approximately 40 million other adults in the U.S., I have an anxiety disorder. And like those 40 million other people, stress makes my anxiety worse. For those of us with anxiety disorders, panic attacks on the job can become a frightening normal, and so learning to deal with them is essential. I was sixteen the first time I had a panic attack at work, and it was caused by a customer yelling at me. My boss, having heard the shouting, came and towed me into the walk-in freezer, where he told me to take a few minutes to collect myself. I ended up inside the walk-in, sitting on chilled boxes of pizza cheese, and from then on, the walk-in was where I went if I felt the creep of an oncoming panic attack.
Since the workplace is a huge source of stress for people, it's no surprise panic attacks can occur at work. "Work for many is high pressure, fast pace with expectations that sometimes go past their abilities," Klapow explains. "There is often not a way to vent, to blow off frustration, to diffuse stress." However, what we can do about panic attacks at work can be surprising.
Hands-down the most important thing you can do at work is to establish a safe space for yourself. That is, a space where you feel comfortable and not vulnerable. Somewhere you can go to sit out a panic attack, or heck, even somewhere you can go to cry when you're just having an off day. Klapow says he recommends that his patients take hourly "breathing bathroom breaks," where they can go destress by taking long, slow breaths in a quiet place.
A permanent safe place will of course be as individual as you are — so while some folks may suggest finding a small space with no people, you may prefer an open-windowed conference room with a trusted coworker, or an empty office, or to retreat to your car to call a friend, spouse, or therapist. A coffeeshop around the corner can offer a much-needed reprieve, or maybe a bookstore. The key thing is identifying what your safe space looks like in advance, and know you can access that space when you feel a panic attack coming on.
Paul Li, a lecturer of cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, writing for Scientific American, explains that having a panic attack engages several areas of the brain and shoots them into hyperdrive. Regions triggered include the amygdala, aka "the fear center of the brain," as well as "parts of the midbrain that control a range of functions, including our experience of pain." Normally, Li explains, if you sense a threat, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, "releasing energy and preparing the body for action."
Once the threat is gone or neutralized, "the parasympathetic nervous system steps in, and the body stabilizes to a calmer state," Li says. But if your parasympathetic doesn't or can't step in, "a person will remain fired up and may experience the heightened arousal characteristic of a panic attack."
That means that during a panic attack, your brain and body are essentially prepped and ready for an imminent, potentially deadly threat to your person. Establishing a space where you can feel completely safe will help soothe your body down from this heightened state.
Once you're in your safe place, Klapow recommends checking your breathing and heart rate, and making sure to breathe slowly as you talk yourself down. "Statements like 'calm, cool, relax' as you breathe will help you return your heart rate and blood pressure to a more normal state and will also release muscle tension," he explains. "Once you have returned to baseline, keep the self-talk up. It will keep you calm."
It's essential that employees who are suffering from anxiety in the workplace be allowed to "simply do what they need to do in an unobtrusive manner to collect themselves," Klapow says. "Anxiety in the workplace leads to lost work days, big decrements in productivity and a more tense environment for everyone."
Having a place where you can experience and calm your anxiety will help prevent work from becoming a trigger for further attacks, Klapow adds.
Of course, finding a safe place will be a lot to handle if you're already in the midst of a panic attack, so if you feel comfortable, you should establish a place as soon as you can. Know your own limits, know what will help calm you down, and find an area that will suit you best. That way, you'll have it staked out for days when you really do need it.