Having a panic attack while at work can be a difficult and embarrassing situation. Trying to remain professional while you’re lightheaded, shaking and sweating is not an easy task. The good news is that panic attacks are usually short lived. Clinical psychologist Colleen D. Cira says the intensity of the panic attack fades after about 10 minutes, but those 10 minutes can seem like an eternity to someone suffering a panic attack. Thankfully, there are a few ways to help your panic attack subside, so you can continue with your workday.
Understand what a panic attack is
Understanding what is happening in your body when you’re having a panic attack can help you stop being afraid of them. Although panic attack triggers are not completely known, Christopher Cortman, author of Take Control of Your Anxiety , says a panic attack is an exaggeration of the body’s normal stress response. “The body is preparing a person to fight or to run,” says Cortman. Symptoms such as rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness and tightening of the chest are a result of the heart pumping blood at a rapid pace to major muscle groups to prepare the body to fight or flight. Cortisol and adrenaline are released into the body; chemicals that would help prepare your body for a threat.
Knowing what is happening in your body and telling yourself that there is no real physical threat can help you get through the panic attack. “To know that one is not having a heart attack, going crazy, or dying can be a tremendous relief and help the mind to shut the panic down, by normalizing instead of catastrophizing the body’s reaction,” says Cortman.
Tell yourself it will pass
Once you’re aware that you’re having a panic attack, telling yourself that you understand what you’re feeling and that you can manage it can help you to get through the episode. Saying to yourself, “I know what this is,” “I need to accept this is happening and focus on my breath and this feeling will go away,” can help you to get through the uncomfortable situation.
If you feel a panic attack coming on, the best thing you can do is try to change your scenery. Go for a walk, head to the bathroom, or find another room to be in. This is easy to say if you’re sitting at your desk. But if you’re in a boardroom full of people or conference or situation where people will recognize if you leave the room, leaving may not be an option. In this case, Cira advises to focus on your breathing and positive self-talk, but recognizing that you may just have to ride it out. “Just like a toddler who is kicking and screaming on the floor, there’s not a whole lot of effective strategies to calm that kid down in that moment, you just have to wait for the storm to pass,” says Cira.
Shift your focus
While it may not be possible to physically remove yourself from the panic-inducing situation, you can remove yourself mentally. By focusing on something other than that overwhelming feeling that comes with a panic attack, you can calm your panic down. “People have reported that prior to giving a speech where they were off the chart anxious/panicking, someone whispered a funny in their ear and helped them to shift their focus,” says Cortman.
Focus on your breath
The physical symptoms of a panic attack are a result of your sympathetic nervous system being activated. These symptoms can be reversed by activating your parasympathetic nervous system; the system responsible for bringing your body back to status quo. A few belly breaths can help to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. Take a slow breath through your nose with your mouth closed, hold it for a few seconds, then exhale out slowly through your nose. Free apps such as Calm or Breathe2Relax can be helpful for those who need some assistance with deep breathing exercises.
Use cold water
Running your hands through cold water or splashing some water on your face can also activate the parasympathetic response by decreasing your body temperature and slowing down your heart rate. “When we are cold our heart rate slows because it’s trying to conserve energy,” says Cira. If it’s cold outside, try going for a walk or take an ice pack from your lunch bag and place it on the back of your neck.
Don’t hide your panic attack
Trying to hide your panic attacks can cause added stress and make the attack even worse. If you’re prone to having panic attacks, telling a trusted co-worker can help make you more comfortable. Telling people that you are experiencing an episode and requesting permission to leave will help you to stop feeling trapped if an attack comes on. Of course, seeking help from a medical professional is also important and key to overcoming a panic disorder long-term.