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Have you ever felt like you're at work when you experience a profound sense of dread?
You can't breathe because your heart is pounding, your hands are trembling, you're lightheaded, and you're drenched in sweat. You believe you are having a heart attack and are about to die. When the symptoms begin to fade, you're about to call an ambulance. You've just experienced a panic attack.
The American Psychological Association (APA) describes a panic attack as "a sudden surge of overwhelming fear that comes without warning and without any obvious reason." Your feelings and physical symptoms (such as shortness of breath and chest tightness) are very real and can be frightening. Panic attacks are frequently triggered by stressful situations, and the symptoms usually subside once the stress has passed. Public speaking, conflict, an important meeting, a major transition such as a promotion or a large project, or a work-related social event such as a meeting with a key client or after-work drinks are all common workplace triggers.
Find a quiet, private place to sit when you feel a panic attack coming on. If you're in a meeting or another high-pressure situation, try to calmly exit by going to the restroom or getting some water. If you're concerned that your absence will raise suspicions, text a colleague that you're sick and will return when you're feeling better. Once you've found a quiet place, use the strategies listed below to manage your symptoms.
Take a deep breath and slow your move
Close your eyes (this reduces stimulation) and concentrate on taking deep and slow breaths through your mouth. Breathe in for four counts, hold for a second, and then exhale for four counts. This will slow your heart rate and may alleviate dizziness. It will also give you a sense of control, reducing your fear. Sit down and put your head between your legs if you can't control your breathing, or breathe into a paper bag if you have one.
You are in a state of high emotion; remind yourself to take long, slow, deep breaths. Concentrating on your breathing will take your mind off your thoughts. Bring your attention to the present. Pay attention to your physical sensations and identify three things you can see, three things you can hear, and three things you can feel.
Think about peaceful and happy place
Consider a relaxing location: a favorite beach, a hike, or a lake. Imagine yourself there and pay attention to as many details as you can. Focus on what you can see, hear, and feel, just like in the mindfulness exercise.
Repeat the Mantra
Repeat your mantra or favorite words of affirmation if you already have one. If not, close your eyes and repeat one of the phrases below: "This will pass," "I will be fine," or "I will get through this."
Take a Break
Inform your boss that you are ill and need to take a break. Take 15 minutes before returning to your office or desk. Don't look at your phone. Drink a cup of herbal tea. Take a walk or sit outside. If you are unable to remove yourself or do not have 15 minutes, simply sit still for 5 minutes. If possible, spend the rest of the day at home relaxing and regrouping. If this is not your first panic attack, seek medical attention.