How to Handle a Panic Attack at Work: The Complete Guide

Woman at work computer

If you are having a panic attack at work while reading this, please immediately follow the simple steps below (if not, skip this section):

  1. Pull up this article on your phone so you can reference it after leaving your workstation.
  2. Leave the situation you are in as soon as possible. If you need to, make an excuse such as needing to use the bathroom.
  3. Head to the nearest place where you will have privacy or at least avoid interactions that will exacerbate the panic attack. It could be a small, private office, a phone booth, a bathroom stall, a bathroom for only one person or maybe outside the office.
  4. Focus on your breathing. Try to take deep breaths through your nose and let your stomach expand. Continue this until your symptoms improve.
  5. While you are breathing, remind yourself this isn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.
  6. Counter the thought that might be causing or contributing to your panic attack. Now that you’ve found a place where you can better handle your symptoms, think about how safe you are. Nothing can hurt you right now. Everything is OK.
  7. Remember, you have handled panic attacks before. You were OK then and you will be OK now.
  8. Focus on your breathing again.
  9. Repeat steps 4-8 as many times as you need to. Remember, there is no rush. Everything is OK.
  10. Head home if you need to. Your health is more important than trying to tough it out and get more work done.
  11. Once the panic attack is over, congratulate yourself. Recognize how that satisfaction makes your body feel. Remember that feeling.

It’s hard to read detailed steps when you are sweating profusely and trying to hold it together. Use the above steps if this is your first time visiting this article. Keep reading if you want in-depth advice for future use.

Note: We derived much of the above and below steps from advice from therapist Perpetua Neo, who has helped many clients manage panic attacks.

Detailed Steps You Can Practice to Handle a Panic Attack at Work and Prepare for the Next One

Use these next steps to prepare and practice in case there is another panic attack. You can also use them if the simple steps were not effective enough. Once you’re done reading, try combinations and make a custom method that works best for you.

Realize When You Are Close to Having a Panic Attack

Panic attacks don’t happen suddenly. They start creeping up an hour before people become aware of them, according to a study published in the National Center of Biotechnology Information.

By memorizing the signs of an oncoming panic attack, you can better prepare for it and react quickly. Here they are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart racing
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Hot flashes
  • Trembling
  • Nausea
  • Choking
  • Numbness

If you experience any one of these symptoms, start using the simple (listed above) or detailed steps (keep reading) in this article. It might negate the panic attack or at least better prepare you.

A More Advanced Technique for Handling a Panic Attack at Work: TIP

Talkspace therapist Jessica Gilpert recommended people handle panic attacks using a technique called TIP. Here is how it works (remember to follow the steps in order):

T = Cold Temperature

If you apply something cold to your body, it will help you calm down during a panic attack. When having a panic attack at work, try finding a bathroom so you can run cold water on your wrists or place a cold towel on your neck. If it’s cold outside, try going out for a bit.

I = Intense Exercise

Exercise will also help you calm down before and during a panic attack. Gilpert recommended running really fast in place, doing some jumping jacks and stretching the chest. Make sure you know where you can do these exercises without disturbing co-workers.

Therapist Laura L. Ryan recommended running, a tactic that has helped several of her clients deal with panic attacks at work.

“I had a client in the past who was having up to 20 panic attacks per day and I suggested she carry running shoes in her purse so she could be prepared when she started to feel the panic coming on,” Ryan said. “She would step outside during her workday to speed walk/run for several minutes when she felt panicked and then return to the office when she was feeling normal again.”

P = Progressive Breathing

Use the breathing techniques mentioned earlier. Remember to inhale through your nose, take deep breaths and allow your stomach to expand.

Talkspace therapist Alicia Winkle suggested breathing in through the nose for five seconds, holding a breath for five seconds and then exhaling for five seconds.

You can practice these techniques as part of TIP or separately.

Read our article on anxiety and mindful breathing for more advice.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation [PMR]

PMR is a great way to relax your body and mind. As the name suggests, it involves relaxing your muscles step-by-step. Here are some PMR steps Winkle recommended using for panic attacks:

  1. Squeeze your fists as hard as possible
  2. Keep them squeezed as you follow these next steps
  3. Inhale through your nose for five seconds
  4. Hold the breath for five seconds
  5. Exhale for five seconds. As you exhale, release your fists.

Note: Try variations on the numbers of seconds until you find the optimal time.

The Power of Water

Therapist Nicole Richardson recommended people drink eight ounces of cold water when having a panic attack. This tactic has worked with several of her clients, Richardson said.

It is also a good idea to splash cold water on your face and the back of your neck, said therapist Perpetua Neo. You can do this using a spray bottle, too.

Preparing for Panic Attacks by Chatting with Co-Workers and Understanding Your Work Environment

Chatting with Supervisors and Co-Workers

To minimize any damage to your professional relationships, consider telling your supervisors and human resource staff members you suffer from panic attacks. You can inform co-workers, too, if you feel comfortable doing so and think it will help the situation.

Remember, it is illegal for anyone to discriminate against you because of a mental illness, including a panic disorder.

Recognize Triggers Around the Office

If your panic attacks start in the workplace, there might be situations, people or objects that trigger them. Try to recognize these. It will help you further prepare.

You should not, however, avoid these triggers to the point where it affects your performance at work. If presentations are a trigger, it might be hard to skip them and keep your job.

Anticipating the panic attack might decrease your likelihood of engaging in certain activities at work, according to Dr. Jude Miller Burke, the former Vice President of OPTUM, United Health Group. This can prevent you from succeeding by taking on new and challenging responsibilities at work.

It’s difficult to recognize and prepare for triggers without anticipating a panic attack. To help the process, Burke suggested using a combination of psychotherapy, relaxation techniques and medication (more on these strategies later in the post).

Carry or Use Counter Triggers: Objects or Actions That Calm You Down

In the same way there are triggers that will start panic attacks, there are objects, people and situations that might calm you before or during an attack. Here are some examples:

  • Calling a family member or friend you are close to
  • Calling or texting a therapist
  • Holding a calming personal belonging with sentimental value such as a stuffed animal
  • Smelling salts (useful for people who are feeling faint)

Make a List of Optimal Places You Can Head To

Being in a place you are comfortable in will help with panic attacks. Here are some examples of environments you can use:

  • The passenger seat of your car (more room than the driver’s seat)
  • Use a private office if you have one. Draw blinds or curtains if you have them.
  • A single-person bathroom
  • A stall in a multi-person bathroom
  • Home (if it is close enough to quickly return to work)

Making Your Game Plan for Handling Panic Attacks at Work

Now that you have the list of tactics, it’s time to customize and make your game plan for handling panic attacks at work. Here is an example of what that should look like:

  1. Leave the situation
  2. Head to the single-person bathroom
  3. Take deep breaths
  4. Use PMR
  5. Call my therapist
  6. Text my supervisor and inform her of what has happened
  7. Go running
  8. Head home

Once you make this plan, put it somewhere easily accessible on your phone or a piece of paper you carry. Modify it as many times as needed. If you need help practicing or forming the plan, consider working with a therapist, someone who can act as a coach.

Get to the Root of the Problem and Stop the Panic Attacks at Work: See a Therapist

Being prepared for a panic attack at work is great, but the best solution is eliminating them. To do this, you’ll need to investigate the cause of the attacks. Seeing a therapist will help you understand what issues and behaviors are at the heart of your panic disorder.

“Panic attacks are the body’s way of shouting that you are ignoring your mind and feelings,” Neo said. Getting in touch with them will help.

Consider Seeing a Psychiatrist

If you need a supplement to therapy to take the edge off your symptoms, consider seeing a psychiatrist. He or she can work with you to find a medication that will help.

Try Supplemental Lifestyle Changes Such as New Diets and Exercise Routines

Dieting

Modifying your diet can reduce panic attacks, according to studies such as this one by Okayama University Medical School. Nutritionist Trudy Scott has worked with clients who made the following research-supported diet changes as part of coping with their panic attacks:

  • Eating sources of quality protein, including eggs, a protein shake, grass-fed red meat and grass-fed beef jerky
  • Trying a gluten-free diet to see whether it makes a difference
  • Eating probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut

People who suffer with panic attacks can also work with experts and organizations to formulate specific diet plans, said Polly J. Meyers, the co-founder of BreakFreeFromAnxiety.com.

“Your mind will go further with therapy after that,” Meyers told Talkspace.

Exercise

Exercising during a break in the work day can help with panic attacks. Exercise at any time will help prevent the development of other anxiety disorders, according to this study from Southern Methodist University.

By using this article to form a plan to handle panic attacks at work, you should be set for the present. Then you can try a combination of therapy, dieting or exercise to secure a mentally healthy — and panic-free — future.

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Published by

Joseph Rauch

Staff Writer at Talkspace