Trigger warning to my anxious peoples. If reading about panic attacks makes you anxious, skip to the portion that gives the 6 tips to help you deal with panic attacks at work. The subtitle is bold, so you’ll see it.
Art drawn by J. Braga
Art written by Shan
Panic attacks don’t schedule appointments. They can happen anywhere and anytime: while you’re playing video games, driving, standing in line at the grocery store, and the most dreadful location—at work, the place where people are supposed to see you as nothing less than professional, in control, confident, and reliable.
But what are you supposed to do when you’re speaking with a client or customer, and suddenly you feel like you can’t breathe? You hear your heartbeat quicken, you feel sweat prickle your forehead, and the headache you’ve been holding at bay with Aleve is suddenly back with a vengeance? You want to run outside and gulp fresh air to reassure yourself that you can indeed breath, but you’re in the middle of explaining objective pronouns to a student who is beginning to look at you strangely because you’re suddenly talking very quickly, and your information isn’t as clearly delivered as it was at the beginning of the session.
Panic attacks at work really suck. If you didn’t already feel like a mad person for freaking out when nothing is wrong, having people you don’t know personally see you freak out or breakdown when nothing is actually wrong will make you feel like a plum fool.
While I was an English tutor in FAMU’s Writing Resource Center, it was inevitable that I would have panic attacks. Not because the job was stressful. It wasn’t. I loved my job, my coworkers, and the students we tutored. When you have anxiety, any situation can be a stressful one, and the slightest nudge could lead to a panic attack.
Here’s how not to handle them.
I was working with a young woman on an essay assignment. We were using one of the computers, which sat at the desk on the perimeter of the WRC. This one was facing the wide, half-wall windows that reveled the beautiful blue, cloudless sky over wonderful view of FAMU’s journalism school, dorms, and parking garage. It was a lovely day.
Unfortunately, it was around 3 p.m., which was when my anxiety worsened because I had been subconsciously clenching my jaw and tensing all my muscles since I woke up that morning, and my body had had it! This wasn’t a unique occurrence. It happened every day. It was subconscious, so I could not stop it or control it for long, meaning, by the end of the day, I was completely on edge.
So, when I heard the yyyyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrmmmm of the plane the first time, I took a deep breath.
The plane is not going to crash into us. That’s an irrational thought. I told myself as the yerm got closer.
Fear of planes crashing and cars exploding were some of the early signs of my anxiety. It didn’t take me long to realize that what I was experiencing was abnormal. I’d assume most people don’t finance a whole car because they think their current one is prone to exploding. I digress. That’s another story.
I felt immense relief as the plane reached it’s nearest point to us, and I was acutely aware of the yerm getting farther away. I continued my session with my client, still a bit frazzled and uncomfortably anxious at this point.
Moving on now, I tried to tell myself when I heard…
Why the hell was this plane back again? This time, as I looked out over the beautiful sky, I could see, to my horror a very large plane flying dangerously close to the ground. Close to us. Close to me! Which is clearly its target. I nervously joked with the student about it.
“Hehe… What? Are those guys lost?” I said loudly enough for those in my vicinity to hear. “They are really low to the ground.”
“Probably a part of a military exercise,” another member of the WRC staff chimed in, looking out the window at a plane.
That made sense. I had been seeing many more army vehicles out that week. It’s probably just a military exercise… I went on with my session, now completely unsettled but trying to calm myself.
Anxiety: You know? An HBCU would be a great terrorist attack target.
Luckily, my hour session had just ended, and I had no more appointments for the day. I chucked the deuces to my WRC family and said “good luck, y’all” with a chuckle, hoping they saw it as a joke. I did not.
I gathered my laptop and folder very quickly and left work an hour before my shift ended, covertly searching the sky to see if the plane was returning. I guess somehow I thought I could outrun it? I watch too many action movies.
Needless to say, FAMU was still standing the next day, completely unharmed, and I felt extremely silly for having such an alarmist reaction about something so implausible. But that’s how anxiety makes you feel. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that nothing was wrong. You feel foolish for thinking otherwise, but in the moment, the panic and sense of impending doom is as real as the screen you’re looking at.
My coworkers didn’t seem to think anything of it that time. But I’m sure I raised a couple eyebrows with this one.
Once again, I was in a session with a student. There was always an ailment of the week of which the Anxiety Monster, Terry (the thunder cloud thing you saw above), convinced me I was dying. This week, it was an aneurysm. It was around 3 o’clock again, and I was trying to not think of the odd pain in my jaw that radiated up to my right temple as I explained an English-related concept to a student.
I tried not to imagine myself fainting and never waking up again or how I would react if everything suddenly started going dark. But that’s like the pink elephant exercise.
Try not to think of a pink elephant.
Now what are you thinking about?
That was it. I had worked myself up past the point of no return. I became hyper-aware of any little sensation in my body. At this point, I was in full panic mode, and I couldn’t even pretend to act normally. I felt my face grow warm suddenly. I stood up abruptly, apologized to my client, and told her I had a terrible headache and needed to leave immediately. I looked desperately to a coworker and asked if she could take over my session, giving the same headache excuse. She agreed. I began attempting to pack my laptop and other items. OMG, what was that twinge in my jaw? I believe I audibly said, “I can’t. I have to go,” to no one in particular and left.
I left my laptop and all of my things and rushed out of the door. I didn’t stop speed-walking until I got to my car. I got in, drove to my SO’s job, and waited for him to get off work, at which point I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to die anymore, but I still wasn’t calm. It was very rare that I was ever calm in those days.
Anxiety had won again, and I felt evermore the fool.
Over the next few months, I got better at having panic attacks at work. There are only so many times you can just leave your job unannounced, even if your boss is super cool and understanding like mine was.
Here are 6 tips that can help you combat panic attacks at work.
- Know what worsens or triggers your anxiety.
When you have general anxiety disorder, Terror is always lurking, waiting for a chance to pounce. Notice what in your work routine gets you past the point of no return. Mine worsened around 3 o’clock. I would wake up in the morning feeling fine because my body had relaxed overnight while I was asleep—no chest pain, no headache, no lack of oxygen. All was well. But after several hours of subconsciously tensing my body in my waking hours, all of those symptoms would begin to show, and they’d make me nervous and uncomfortable.
For you, it may be doing certain tasks: being around your boss, speaking with customers, or working your job in general. Of course, you’d avoid it if you could, but we have to go to work! We’re adults! We have bills to pay and student loans to repay and comfort food to buy. We have to find good short-term coping strategies until we can find long-term solutions.
- If you’re in panic mode, go somewhere you can calm down and take a couple of breaths.
I was lucky enough to have a job and a boss that allowed me to walk outside, sit on a bench, and breath while I calmed down. If your boss is a pain, maybe you can go to the bathroom for a little while. Just sit, breath, and relax your muscles as much as possible. Put on a timer, so you’re not worrying about getting back to work before anyone notices you’re gone. Give yourself five minutes to relax.
- Move and breath slowly and calmly.
Having a panic attack can feel like the dams holding back every anxious thought you can conjure have broken, and you’re being flooded by rapids of anxiety-inducing scenarios. Do not mimic the thoughts. Resist the urge to move with them. Move and breath slowly and deliberately. Moving around nervously while breathing uncontrollably will only send more signals to your brain that you are in danger. If you must move at work, try to slow your motions. If you’re not moving, a nice, short walk, even to the bathroom and back to your work station may help.
- Practice mindfulness activities.
Do something that takes your mind off the thoughts and puts you back into the present moment. I liked the color game. Choose a color. Let’s say blue. Then, identify all the blue items you can see from where you are.
The exercise may make you feel a little strange because you’re looking around the space aimlessly, but there are casual ways to go about it. No one knows what you’re thinking. For all they know, you could be on the precipice of a brilliant idea and just needed some visual simulation.
You could also tune in to your senses. Ask yourself what do you smell, what do you hear, what do you feel. You need to get out of your head and back in the present world.
- Use the progressive muscle relaxation technique to find where the tension is in your body.
You can do this standing or sitting. Starting from the your face, progressively tense one muscle group at a time for ten second while breathing in and let it go quickly as you breathe out. It’s a good way to discover which muscles are tense and release the built up tension.
Realize that this exercise should not hurt in anyway. Don’t tense your muscles to the point where you’re in pain.
6. This GIF.
I had the link to this GIF as my first toolbar bookmark for about two years. It certainly came in handy. If I had even a couple minutes of downtime, I found that it helped significantly with getting my breathing under control.
Adulting with anxiety and panic attacks disorder is difficult. You can’t not go to work because you fear you’ll have a panic attack. We have bills to pay and clients and coworkers who depend on us. We have to face the world and take it one day at a time.
You’re not foolish or silly or weird. You’re a brave individual who chose not to allow their struggles to deprive them of the world nor the world of them.
Keep fighting the good fight. I hope my tips helped.
Peace, Love, and Happy Adulting!