How to Deal with Panic Attacks at Work

You have a secret…one you’ve shared with a few friends but carefully guarded at work. You can’t imagine telling anyone, but you worry they’ll eventually find out anyway. What’s the big secret? You suffer from panic attacks, and you never know when you’re going to have one.


You may someday have a panic attack at work. But it doesn’t have to be as bad as you’re worried it will be. In fact, by having some coping strategies in place ahead of time, you can get through it with your dignity intact.


  • Accept that panic attacks are a physiological problem. When you have a panic attack, you don’t just decide to sweat, breathe rapidly, and feel nauseated. Those things happen because your brain tells your body it’s in danger. Those physical responses would be perfectly normal if your life actually were in danger. You’re not crazy and have nothing to be embarrassed about: Your body is just giving the wrong responses to the wrong cues.
  • Give your co-workers some credit. Psychological problems like panic attacks don’t carry the stigma they did 20 years ago. Most people have heard about them and understand what they are, even if they’ve never seen one. 
  • Prepare an ally. Sometimes when people have panic attacks, they’re not able to think clearly. Give a trusted co-worker a heads-up that you might someday have a panic attack, and let her know what you’d like her to do, whether that’s herding you off to somewhere more private or bringing you a cool drink of water.
  • Have a plan. When you’re in the throes of a panic attack, you’re not going to be very successful at coming up with ways to calm yourself down. That’s why it’s important to have a plan ready when you need it. You may even want to write your plan down or put it in a note on your smartphone. Here are some ideas:

o   Remind yourself that the panic attack can’t actually hurt you. You’re not in physical danger. The worst thing that can happen is that you feel embarrassed, and with the proper preparation, even that doesn’t have to happen.

o   Hold your breath. That sounds counter-intuitive, but that’s why it works. It interrupts your rapid breathing, breaking the cycle.

o   Next, do some deep breathing. Inhale and exhale through your nose, as slowly as you can. To know if you’re doing it right, put one hand on your chest and one hand on your diaphragm. You should be able to feel your diaphragm rise and fall, but not your chest.

o   Do something repetitive and monotonous. One psychologist has her patients draw circles, while repeating, “I’m drawing circles.” It sounds silly, but the repetition slows your body’s responses down.

o   Keep working. If you don’t have a monotonous task to do, try to keep working. Here’s why it works: Your brain is telling you that you need to run for your life. If you don’t do that, and just keep on with what you’re doing, your brain will eventually say, “Never mind…false alarm.”


There’s no way to make a panic attack at work something to celebrate. But it doesn’t have to be a disaster, either. How it plays out is largely up to you. By knowing how you’ll handle it before it happens, you’ll have a much better chance of going back to work with your head held high.

photo credit: freeimages via juliaf