The 21st-century workplace can be tough on employees; stress is currently taking a toll on people’s mental health. Unfortunately, it’s worse for employees who already have pre-existing health conditions. The combination of stress, deadlines, and many other factors often leads to panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden, intense, and unexpected surges of fear that result in severe physical reactions. Research shows that about 2-3% of Americans suffer panic attacks, with women being the majority.
There are often no immediate and tangible dangerous situations with panic attacks that would typically cause fear and fear reactions. Some people experience only a few panic attacks, and many others have panic attacks throughout their lives. If you’ve noticed a pattern of constant panic attacks, then you may have panic disorder.
Panic Attacks vs. Anxiety
Many people use the terms “anxiety” and “panic attacks” interchangeably. However, panic attacks are different from anxiety, even though their symptoms could be similar. Almost everyone suffers some form of anxiety from time to time, and conversely, panic attacks are more severe and complicated.
Panic attacks are usually sudden, while anxiety is a continuous worry about everyday events for extended periods. Both conditions can affect daily functions, cognition, and job performance.
Symptoms of Panic Attacks
Panic attacks are generally unexpected and sudden. Unfortunately, you can’t stop a panic attack once it starts. So, below are signs to look out for concerning panic attacks.
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
- Abdominal cramping
- Faster heartbeats
- Intense fear of impending doom or danger
- Numbness or tingling in your fingers and toes
- Apparent shaking and trembling
- Fear of losing control
- Dizziness and light-headedness
- Detachment from reality
These symptoms usually peak after a few minutes. After this, they quickly subside, leaving the person weak and fatigued. Panic attacks are so scary that sufferers tend to avoid environments and situations that trigger them.
Causes of Panic Attacks
Several factors can trigger panic attacks. However, these triggers are peculiar for individuals. For example, chronic stress, phobias, existing medical conditions, and low self-esteem can cause panic attacks. Environmental factors are sometimes responsible for panic attacks too. For instance, chronic illnesses and major life changes such as a divorce or becoming a parent. Suffering a significant personal loss can also trigger panic attacks. Finally, drugs, alcohol, and some medications can cause panic attacks.
How to Cope With Panic Attacks at Work
Panic attacks can adversely affect your work output. Therefore, it is important to learn how to deal with mental health issues like panic attacks at work. Neglecting these coping skills will be unfair to you and your employers. So, it’ll be best to follow the tips below.
Identify Your Triggers
Panic attacks are often sudden, unexpected and recurrent, and can be triggered by several different situations. It would be helpful to identify what triggers your workplace panic attacks to manage panic attacks. For example, is it a presentation before the board? Or a performance management meeting? Or something else?
So, once you identify these triggering events, you can then develop the skills for managing or avoiding these attacks. Be specific. It’s been said that “a well-defined problem is a problem half solved”. This adage tends to be true with panic attacks too. Knowing your triggers can also help you make an early exit before your attacks start.
Know Your Symptoms
Panic attacks don’t just happen. Instead, the signs and symptoms start showing up shortly before they occur. According to a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, symptoms of panic attacks begin several minutes before the attack. In addition, physical symptoms are often so scary that they can hasten the full episodes.
Therefore, it’ll be best to be well acquainted with your recurrent symptoms. This would include understanding your physical body changes and thought processes before an attack. For instance, you can notice that you start trembling visibly before an attack. Knowing your symptoms will put you on alert and help you prepare for eventual panic attacks.
Use Counter Triggers
Just as objects and situations can trigger panic attacks, some other objects and events can calm you down. Relevant objects could be small balls, stuffed animals, or even stationery. Similarly, particular people can be counter triggers, and such persons may be colleagues or friends from home. So, you can take the following steps to exploit these counter triggers effectively:
- Call or text friends or family members that help you relax, or
- Speak to a co-worker that helps you cope with work stress
- Hold and play with objects that induce calming sensations in you
- Speaking to or texting your therapist
Understand that Panic Attacks Don’t Reflect Your Ability
Panic attacks can have you questioning your suitability for your job. For example, you may think that your attacks are because of your incapability. However, it’s necessary to know that panic attacks don’t mean that you’re a less valuable employee. These attacks don’t reflect your strengths or identity as a person. Instead, you’re dealing with a medical condition; it is no different than if you had a headache or the flu.
Follow Your Treatment Plan
Panic attacks are manageable with professional help. For example, medication and therapy can help you deal with these attacks during work. Relevant forms of therapy would include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Applied relaxation therapy
- Exposure therapy
Whatever treatment method your doctor or therapist recommends, it’ll be best to follow through with them. Take your medications and never miss therapy sessions. Disobeying your doctor’s orders can scuttle your progress.
Have a Reliable Support System
Hiding your panic attacks from your employers and co-workers may be necessary. However, it’s crucial to have a support network of friends and family. This group can also include your medical professionals. Like other struggles, a support system makes coping with panic attacks easier. Furthermore, they can actively help you cope with work stress to reduce the chances of having panic attacks.
It’s also noteworthy that having a healthy work environment is crucial. Toxic workplaces can expose you to more frequent panic attacks, and hiding these attacks may become impossible. So, if possible, it’ll be best to work in understanding environments where you don’t also have to live with the fear that your panic attacks will be discovered.
Don’t Leave Your Workplace
It may appear that leaving work when you have panic attacks is the best move. For example, you could choose to take the day off. Your employer may even be okay with this step. However, unless your panic attacks come with dangerous physical reactions, it’ll be best not to leave your workplace.
Staying at work and facing your fears is best because facing your fears or concerns head-on in a safe environment is great for overcoming panic attacks. Fleeing your workplace is a short-term solution to a persistent problem. Plus, you may not have the luxury of leaving work every time you suffer a panic attack, and some employers may not be accommodating with that. So, it could be helpful to visit a mental health professional to learn to cope with panic attacks at work.
Can My Employer Fire Me for Having a Panic Attack at Work?
The stigma attached to workplace panic attacks makes many affected employees fear losing their jobs after such episodes. Fortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects employees from such termination, and this Federal Act prohibits employers from firing or refusing to hire individuals because of their disabilities.
A disability is any physical or mental impairment that limits major life activities. Panic attacks can interfere with thinking, breathing, and communication which are major life activities. Therefore, it’ll be discriminatory for your employer to fire you because you had a panic attack. If they sack you, you can file a discrimination claim.
What About Employment-At-Will States?
Some American states operate an employment-at-will system. “Employment-at-will” means that the business owner can fire employees for any reason and without notice. Many times, the employer doesn’t even need to have a reason. Fortunately, though, the law doesn’t allow employers to fire workers for illegal reasons. Firing an employee because they’re dealing with panic attacks will be discriminatory and unlawful, so your job is safe.
Workplace Panic Attacks: The Day After
Returning to work after a panic attack could be challenging for you, especially if others have seen you having a panic attack. It’s normal for sufferers to be embarrassed, and returning to the workplace after a very public panic attack can elicit feelings of fear, embarrassment, and awkwardness. Many people don’t understand panic attacks. So, they may mistake your attacks as not being able or willing to work.
Whatever the case, you have two options when resuming work after a panic attack. Firstly, you can get back to your seat as if nothing had happened. Conversely, you can explain your condition to your co-workers and trust them to understand.
Speaking to them may be more helpful as they can help you cope with future episodes. A colleague may even be struggling with panic attacks too. So, speaking up can improve your workplace’s culture towards panic attacks and other mental health disorders.
Sadly, employees have to deal with panic attacks alongside the heavy demands of their jobs. Unfortunately, the unsupportive culture of many industries doesn’t make coping with workplace panic attacks easier. The tips above can help you deal with panic attacks at work and prevent them from adversely affecting your job. Our online platform can provide you with more tips and help you cope with stress at work.
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