Panic attacks aren’t just excruciating, they can also pop up at the most inconvenient times without warning ― like at your desk or right before an important meeting.
The mental health issue can derail your whole day. But when you’ve got a job to do, sometimes you have to power through. So how do you manage it so you’re able to get back to your to-do list?
We chatted with a few experts on their tips for handling a panic attack when you’re in the office. Check out their advice below:
1. Focus on your breathing.
Getting in touch with your breath can help calm your whole body, says Danielle Forshee, a licensed clinical social worker and psychologist.
If you’re able to do it at your desk, Forshee suggests trying some diaphragmatic breathing. Sit comfortably in your chair with your head and shoulders relaxed. Place your hand on your stomach and your chest, then take deep breaths in through your noise and exhale through your mouth, feeling your stomach muscles tighten as you release the air.
“This strategy will physiologically de-escalate their body so they are more likely to bring down their panic attack symptoms very quickly,” Forshee said.
2. Try concentrating on your task.
Work may help you keep your mind from spiraling, said Ricks Warren, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.
“I would suggest they remind themselves that this will pass and try to focus on what they need to do ― the task at hand ― and see if they can ride it out,” he added.
3. Go to a private location.
If you can’t calm down, it’s totally understandable. Head to a bathroom or another private location in the building. Warren recommends splashing some cool water on your face and trying to take a few moments to focus on your breathing while you’re there to see if that works instead.
You can also recite a few phrases out loud like “I am OK” or take stock of your surroundings to ground your mind, Forshee added.
4. Head out on a brief walk.
Sometimes a quick mental break from work may be more useful when it comes to slowing down racing thoughts, according to Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education and chair of the American Psychotherapy Association advisory board.
“If that means walking around the building or quietly listening to music, do whatever it takes to let your body know that you’ve got this and you are OK,” he said.
5. Reach out to someone you trust.
That could be a co-worker or a manager, if you feel comfortable telling them what’s going on. Otherwise, text or call a loved one.
“Get support and validation for what is happening,” Reidenberg said. “Let them give you the support that you need and allow their words to sink in. External sources can help you reframe what you are experiencing.”
And if you need a quicker fix while you wait for a response, try using your smartphone.
“Going to their phone and looking at photos will remind them of happier times, [which] will help stimulate positive thoughts and ‘ground’ them,” Forshee said.
6. If you can, try to stay at work for the remainder of the day.
Of course it’s totally OK to take a mental health day if you need it ― sometimes panic attacks are just so debilitating it’s impossible to do anything else. But Warren warns against relying on this option too heavily or resorting to it every time a panic attack pops up. It could establish a psychological pattern, allowing your mind to equate safety with being outside of the office, he says.
7. Look for mental health resources at work.
If this isn’t the first time you’re having a panic attack at work, try looking into your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) or talking to HR about the options available to you in the office when it comes to your mental health.
And, on the whole, companies should support these efforts. Not everyone feels like they can open up about mental health issues in the office, but both Warren and Reidenberg stress that it’s vital that workplaces are more understanding when it comes to mental illness.
“The more there can be a culture of acceptance around mental health, the more people will be more likely to perform better thanks to the support that they get,” Warren said. “It’s in the company’s best interest to support those individuals. It’ll benefit them in the long run as well.”
8. Above all, remind yourself this isn’t your fault.
It’s critical to practice compassion with yourself, Warren stresses. A mental health condition is not a personality flaw.
“It’s important that people not put themselves down,” Warren said. “They shouldn’t tell themselves that they’re a failure or a loser. They should work on accepting themselves with their panic attacks or other emotional problems.”