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How To Stop A Panic Attack At Work

August 13, 2019

 

Having a panic attack at any time really sucks. It can be terrifying.

 

Having a panic attack at work though, can also be embarrassing, interfere with your productivity, and cause you to fear losing your job.

 

Whether you are in a meeting, in your office, behind a counter, or in any other workplace setting; These strategies will help you stop a panic attack at work:

 

1. Use Self-Talk

2. Stay Put

3. Just Breathe

4. Shift Your Focus

5. Covert Muscle Relaxation

6. Write It Out

7. Draw It Out

 

 

What Are The Symptoms Of A Panic Attack At Work?

  • Heart Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate

  • Sweating

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering

  • Feelings of choking

  • Chest pain or discomfort

  • Nausea or abdominal distress

  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint

  • Chills or heat sensations

  • Numbness or tingling sensations

  • De-realization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)Fear of losing control or “going crazy”Fear of dying

These symptoms often cause people to leave work and avoid work. You may find yourself calling in sick more because you fear having another panic attack at work.

 

 

 

What Causes Panic Attacks At Work?

Thinking

Catastrophic thoughts turn on the body's fight or flight stress response that could lead to panic attacks.

 

Misinterpretation of bodily sensations is another common trigger for a panic attack. Two minutes after running up a flight of stairs, a pounding heart and shortness of breath is misinterpreted as an internal threat such as a heart attack or other cardiac event.

 

This misinterpretation causes fear of survival which turns on the flight or freeze response. This increases the heart rate and physical discomfort further and confirms the person’s misinterpretation of physical danger.

 

Stress and Anxiety

Chronic stress adds up overtime. If you don’t find a way to cope with the stress, your body will respond with anxiety. This leaves you vulnerable to panic attacks.

 

A buildup of stress from life events such as losing a job, death of a loved one, or divorce may cause symptoms of anxiety that could lead to a panic attack. Our bodies experience a physiological response to these stresses that could lead to symptoms of a panic attack.

 

Anticipatory Anxiety

This is when you feel anxious and tense. This anxiety is often caused from your fear of having future panic attacks. This “fear of fear” may occur frequently and can act as a trigger for having a panic attack.

 

Avoidance

Behaviorally avoiding situations that are associated with panic attacks only temporarily relieves anxiety. Avoidance actually strengthens anxiety and panic.

 

When having a panic attack you most likely have been running away from the situation, avoiding work by calling in sick, or becoming over-controlled when feeling anxious while at work.

 

Avoiding confirms and maintains the belief that the situation and/or the symptoms are dangerous. You might not have a panic attack by avoiding a particular place but you have also reinforced that whatever you just avoided is dangerous.

 

 

How To Stop A Panic Attack At Work

 

1. Use Self-Talk

By using self-talk, your inner voice will begin to shift your thoughts from catastrophic "OMG, OMG" to more optimistic thoughts of "I can handle this."

 

Shifting your thinking first is THE MOST IMPORTANT step in stopping a panic attack at work. Do this before any other coping strategy.

 

Our thinking is what's responsible for triggering a panic attack and keeping the panic attack going. How we react with our thoughts will determine the course of a panic attack.

 

Our thoughts are very quick and initially are automatic when it comes to having a panic attack.

 

When a physical symptom such as a rapid heart beat occur, it is very common for our first automatic thought to be a catastrophic one, "I'm going to lose control and pass out!" This thought adds more fuel to a panic attack and then we react with more catastrophic thoughts.

 

Also thinking "What if I have a panic attack at work" will cause you to have anticipatory anxiety, increase your fear of having a panic attack, and can then lead to you having a panic attack.

 

Say to yourself:

  • "This is just a false alarm"

  • "This feeling will pass"

  • "I am safe"

  • "I CAN handle this"

 

2. Stay Put

DON'T LEAVE and avoid your work space. Leaving your work space during a panic attack will reinforce the association between your work space and having panic attacks.

 

Avoidance gives more power to the fear.

 

By leaving you have confirmed that your work space is dangerous. You now run the risk of having another panic attack at work. 

 

3. Just Breathe

Take some deep breaths. Deep breathing gives you a sense of control over your body when feeling out of control during a panic attack, especially if you are hyperventilating or feeling dizzy.

 

When we are anxious we tend to breathe faster. We take in more oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. But if we are not actively running away from or fighting the misperceived danger, then our bodies don’t use up all of the oxygen.

 

This causes an imbalance with too much oxygen and too little carbon dioxide in our blood. This condition is called respiratory alkalosis.

 

The extra oxygen can cause us to feel light-headed and feel tingling in our fingers and toes.

 

Deep breathing helps correct the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels during panic attacks.

 

Deep breathing works to activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for producing a calm and relaxed feeling. 

 

4. Shift Your Focus

After using self-talk, staying put, and taking deep breaths you will Shift your focus outside of your head and body to your surroundings.

 

Shifting your focus outside of yourself causes you to stop focusing on the physical symptoms of a panic attack and the fearful thoughts that just add more fuel to a panic attack.

 

You stop analyzing your symptoms and you start analyzing something else in your environment, like how many colors there are in a picture on the wall.

 

The symptoms of a panic attack begin to decrease because you are moving away from the danger of focusing on the uncomfortable symptoms. 

 

5. Covert Muscle Relaxation

Covert muscle relaxation can be performed when you are in a meeting, with coworkers, or when around customers.  

 

Basically you are tensing and relaxing the parts of your body in a way that others can not see and it does not overtly appear that you are tensing and relaxing muscles.

 

 

Progressive muscle relaxation is often used in conjunction with deep breathing to overcome the fight or flight stress response of the sympathetic nervous system by activating the parasympathetic, rest and digest, system.

 

 

As you tense and then release a muscle, it has to relax. Tensing each muscle group and then relaxing causes your muscles to become more relaxed than they were before tensing. As a result the heart slows down because relaxed muscles don’t need as much oxygen.

 

Breathing and blood pressure also slow down. This will also help you to decrease being over-controlled and will send the message to your sympathetic nervous system that the danger has passed.

 

Covert Muscle Relaxation Exercise While At Work​:

  • While sitting or standing, begin by tensing your right hand either under a table or by your side for a count of 5, then relax your grip for a count of 5

  • Tense your left hand the same way for a count of 5, then relax your grip for a count of 5

  • Push the balls of your feet and toes into the ground for a count of 5, then relax for a count of 5

  • Shrug your shoulders to your ears (This is perfectly acceptable, every does it) and tense for a count of 5, then relax your shoulders for a count of 5

  • Tense your abdomen for a count of 5, then relax for a count of 5

 

Tips: Focus on the difference between the tension and relaxation as this is the most important part of the exercise.

 

 

6. Write It Out

Writing is a great way to shift your brain out of the panic cycle between your amygdala and frontal lobe.

 

By writing you are accessing your left parietal lobe and taking power away from the parts of the brain responsible for panic attacks.

 

This also helps you shift your focus externally onto a paper rather than focusing on internal symptoms.

 

Just start writing anything. Write how you are feeling or make a shopping list.

 

7. Draw It Out

Drawing is similar to writing in that you will shift your brain out of the panic cycle between your amygdala and frontal lobe.

 

By drawing you are accessing your right parietal lobe and taking power away from the parts of the brain responsible for panic attacks.

 

Draw or doodle anything as this will change your focus and shift your brain out of panic mode.

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Russell Hunter, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

I want to help you. Please feel free to contact me confidentially by email below with any questions or if you need some advice about the content posted on The Fear Blog.

Attacking Panic: The Power To Be Calm. Copyright © 2017 Russell A. Hunter, Psy.D. All rights reserved. Attacking Panic is available in paperback and Kindle edition at Amazon and in paperback at Barnes & Noble and other online retailers.

How to Stop A Panic Attack Quickly.

Russell A. Hunter, Psy.D. Psychology Today Profile

National Register of Health Service Psychologists

8644 Sudley Road, Suite 315 Manassas VA 20110

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