How to handle panic attacks at work

Feeling like the world’s going to end, you’re about to die, or you’re going “mad”… Struggling to breathe, pains in your chest, dizziness, feelings of terror…

These symptoms are all too familiar for nearly 1% of the UK population; roughly 600,000 people. And despite trends around workplace ‘happiness’ and reducing stress for employees, panic attacks involving all of the above can happen in the workplace just as easily as anywhere else.

What are panic attacks?

“Panic attacks are more common in people who have a type of anxiety disorder, but anyone can experience them,” says Emma Mamo, head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind.

“Panic attacks can be a really horrible experience, but it’s important to remember that they will pass. They tend to be over in a matter of minutes (usually between 5 and 20), and are surprisingly common.”

“Panic attacks feel like an alien has taken over your body,” says Dr Perpetua Neo, a Psychologist and Executive Coach. “They are physiologically and psychologically exhausting. They’re often your body screaming at you that something isn’t right in your life.”

Whether it’s something in your personal life, or something at work, the feelings of conflict/anxiety that surround it could lead to a panic attack anywhere.

Neo goes on to advise that “often, we try to rationalise our fears away” which essentially makes the problem worse.

“We oscillate between living in our head and escaping our heads – in what I call Cognitive Photostop,” she explains, a concept where we use our intellect to explain away and attempt to bypass experiences, avoiding dealing with them.

“We often aren’t aware we might be experiencing High-Functioning Anxiety, because we subscribe to the stereotype that a person with anxiety is completely unable to function and hides under the covers every day, chewing their nails. And then our body erupts in panic attacks to signal it’s time to stop ‘managing’ the situation, and start getting to the root and mastering it.”

What can cause panic attacks in the workplace?

“Environment can be a trigger, e.g. if a person feels trapped in their lives (like an abusive relationship) and the lift stalling for 20 seconds reinforces this trapped feeling, it could cause their first panic attack, which then cascades to further episodes,” says Dr Neo.

She goes on to advise: “Sometimes panic attacks start in one location, and as we start fearing them and feeling even more helpless and hopeless, they start happening in our workplace. This is especially likely if there are situations at work that make us feel trapped or remind us of what is making us highly anxious.”

On the other hand, the workplace could be the environment that triggers a panic attack in the first place.

“Being exposed to unmanageable stress can worsen our physical and mental health, so if you’re going through a particularly stressful period at work that could be a factor,” says Emma Mamo, head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind.

“Sometimes, however, you won’t necessarily be able to pinpoint the trigger for having a panic attack at work. As an example, we often get contacted by people who’ve experienced panic attacks when returning to work after time off.”

What you can do in the grip of a panic attack?

First and foremost, says Mamo, it’s worth remembering that “everyone’s experience of panic attacks is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing them – inside or outside work.”

When feelings of panic start building, excuse yourself from the situation and do something to make yourself feel grounded, safe and comfortable.

“Increasingly employers provide quiet rooms for staff who might be struggling, so do make use of these spaces if there is one in your workplace,” says Mamo.

“Grounding yourself is as simple as taking deep long breaths to reset your brain’s fear centre. But make sure you are filling your belly up with air when you breathe in, instead of focussing on emptying it, otherwise you hyperventilate and feel worse,” says Neo.

Neo also advises talking to a manager or your HR and, most importantly, not to feel embarrassed about it.

“It’s normal to feel anxious or ashamed, as though there is something wrong with you. Just know, it is normal to have panic attacks. It’s also normal to have them treated.”

Is it a long-term concern?

“You might have one panic attack and never experience another, or you might find that you have them regularly, or even several in a short space of time,” says Mamo.

There are so many factors that feed into a panic attack which makes it difficult to anticipate how often they may happen.

“Panic attacks often go hand-in-hand with anxiety disorders, but not always,” she goes on to say. “And there are many physical health problems associated with long-term levels of stress and anxiety like headaches, problems with the jaw, teeth pain resulting from involuntary clenching and grinding, persistent blood pressure spikes and stomach problems.”

So if you’re feeling these physical issues regularly, it may be a sign that another panic attack is brewing.

“The more helpless and hopeless you feel, the more severe it gets,” says Neo. “You start to worry about the trigger situations. For instance, if it’s speaking during a meeting, the thought of your next meeting might terrify you for weeks on end, and that morning itself you’re already primed on high-alert for your next panic attack. And if you look for symptoms, you’ll definitely find them. With time, we learn to feel more helpless— there is a phenomenon called ‘learned helplessness’— and this comes from simply ‘managing’ symptoms.”

Seeking help

As with most mental health problems, panic attacks are treatable, and the sooner you get help, the better.

“If you’ve been struggling with your mental health for longer than two weeks, or if symptoms keep returning, and it’s interfering with your life, speak to your GP, who can talk you through options,” says Mamo.

“If you have problems with anxiety you might be prescribed beta blockers to help with the physical symptoms such as racing heart, or antidepressants if you experience depression alongside anxiety disorder. Medication isn’t for everyone and does have some side effects, but there are other options too. Your GP may refer you for talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or counselling. Other people might find things like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, art, music therapy or physical activity beneficial. It’s about finding what works for you.”

To really feel in-control, Neo recommends hiring a professional, “someone who will help you to understand the root and work with you using a practical, structured program, so that the situations that used to scare you no longer have power over you.”

How employers and colleagues can help

It’s valuable to remember that people who experience mental health problems – including panic attacks – can and do make a valuable contribution to the workplace, but may need additional support, says Mamo.

Many people find it hard to return to work after a long spell of sickness absence, so employers need to think about how they can reduce the overall anxiety of the situation. Things like offering a phased return, meeting the person at the door, developing a plan for their first day back, scheduling a lunch with the team and putting in regular catch-ups can all help with this adjustment.

Mind recommends all employers encourage managers to draw up Wellness Action Plans with those they manage – whether their staff have a mental health problem, or not.

It is also helpful to ensure that all employees know how to support a co-worker who appears to be having a panic attack.

“The important thing is to try to stay calm,” says Mamo. “Gently let them know that you think they might be experiencing a panic attack, that it will pass and that in the meantime, you are there for them. Try to take them to a quiet space, encouraging them to breathe slowly and deeply – it can help to count out loud.”

For more information on panic attacks and anxiety,

In summary

Panic attacks can be terrifying, but they are more common than you think, with roughly 1% of the UK population experiencing them. And the reality is that you or a colleague may experience one in the workplace – where most of us spend the majority of our days! The important thing is to remember it will pass, and that there’s a variety of support available to help you work through it.

Read more on mental health in the workplace;

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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