Your job can be a major source of stress. But if you’re prone to panic attacks, work is likely one of the last places you’d ever want an attack to happen. Unfortunately, panic attacks at work can just hit you out of nowhere.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly 30% of people have experienced an anxiety or panic attack at work.
Although the actual causes of panic attacks aren’t known, Dr. Mike Dow, author of Think, Act and Be Happy told HelloGiggles that genetics and your environment can increase your risk for having an attack.
When an attack is triggered, your sympathetic nervous system—or “fight-or-flight” response—basically goes into overdrive. You’ll suddenly feel “overwhelming terror” for no obvious reason. Your heart may race, you may have difficulty breathing, and you may feel like you’re having a heart attack. Sometimes, you can even feel like you’re dying.
The worst part is, worrying about having a panic attack—especially at work—will only increase your chances of actually having one. But Dr. Dow said there are both short-term and long-term strategies you can use to help soothe yourself during an attack. So here are some things you can try:
1 Find a simple way to distract your thoughts
“If you feel a panic attack coming on, just do something simple to distract yourself,” Dr. Dow said. Some examples of good distractions include taking a quick walk around the building or holding a piece of ice in your hand. This will hopefully keep your mind away from “catastrophic thinking,” like, “My boss keeps looking at me weird, I’m going to get fired!”
2 Go to a safe space
Find a “safe space” somewhere in your office building where you can be alone to just breathe when you find yourself triggered. “This space can be a private office or conference room space, an outdoor space, or even your car,” Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, an adult psychiatrist with Doctor On Demand, told HelloGiggles.
3 Say what you see
“My favorite tool to teach my clients when they are having an anxiety or panic attack is to stop and slowly name everything that they see in the room,” Jill Howell, licensed professional counselor and author, explained. “This helps them to be in the moment and prevents their brain from focusing on ‘what ifs’ so their body isn’t activating the panic mode.”
So if you feel a panic attack coming on, look around your office and say what you’re seeing, such as desk, chair, computer, or book. Once you feel calmer, you can focus on breathing and relaxing. “If [people having a panic attack] attempt to focus on their breath too soon, they will only induce a greater feeling of panic since they will still be short of breath,” Howell said.
4 Ground yourself
When you feel a panic attack coming on, chances are you’ll feel overwhelmed with sensation that you can’t control. But if you can remember to ground yourself, “you can start the process of regaining that feeling of control you feel you’re losing,” said Jennifer Boileau, yoga and meditation teacher.
Grounding yourself is fairly easy to do: Start by pressing your feet into the floor. “Mindfully press each toe down and allow yourself to feel the ground supporting you,” she said. Slowly move your attention from each toe towards the ball of your foot then the heel, while taking deep breaths. While you take deep breaths in, imagine that you’re drawing the air up from the ground beneath you.
“Let the breath move up towards the heart, then exhale back down to the feet,” Boileau said. “No one will know a thing, and you will be slowly, calmly regaining your center.”
5 Practice different types of breathing
“When I experienced panic attacks, I felt like my breath was on a runaway train,” Boileau said. “I learned through the practices of yoga and meditation if we want to calm the mind, we need to learn to use the breath in a mindful way.”
She likes to breathe in “circles and squares.” When you’re in the middle of a panic attack, she said, you just need something quick to reference. What’s easier to reference than an image of a circle or square?
When you’re doing circular breathing, you inhale slowly for four to five counts and then exhale for the same amount of time. While you’re breathing in, count to four and imagine yourself drawing half of a circle. Then, while you exhale, count to four again and finish the other half. If you want to envision a square instead, you just follow the same technique.
“This helps to slow down your breath, and you could easily sit in a room full of people and no one would have any idea you were doing it,” Boileau said.
6 Use a wellness app to help yourself practice self-care
There really is an app for everything. There’s no shortage of wellness apps to help you manage your stress or give you strategies to calm down during a panic attack.
“A wellness app is a great resource to pacify a panic attack because you can use it on the spot without being obvious,” Jamie Price, co-founder and president of Stop, Breathe & Think, told HelloGiggles. “Find one that offers a variety of techniques that work to diffuse feelings of panic from different angles.”
If you’re looking for a long-term strategy, Dr. Dow said you need to train your brain to extinguish fear. “Teach your brain that you can be the first one to talk at the board meeting or be assertive with your boss,” he said. “Take one baby step at a time. In the long run, you’ll teach your brain to recognize how capable, calm, and confident you are. That’s a great strategy to conquer panic.”
When it comes to panic attacks at work, just know you can overcome them. It may take some time and you may need to ask for help, but you can do it. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to take those mental health days. You’ll be so thankful that you did.