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Panic Attack at the Office: When Anxiety Spirals Out of Control

Panic attacks can happen at work, too.

It's been a long week. Your mom, who's been successfully battling breast cancer, was hospitalized with a chemo-related infection. Your fiscal quarter ends at the end of the month and you're two deals away from making quota. And could those rumors of more layoffs be true? You're barely keeping your head above water as it is.

Suddenly, in the middle of an important sales presentation, you can't breathe. Sweat starts to roll down your back and your heart races. Everybody is staring. What in the hell is wrong with me? You suddenly flash on your Uncle Bob; didn't he have a heart attack in his mid-forties? Oh, God, am I dying?

Signs and Symptoms of Panic

No. You've just had a panic attack, an episode of intense fear that is often accompanied by physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat, chest pains, difficulty breathing, and dizziness/lightheadedness. It's far more intense than feeling "stressed out" or "worried." In fact, for many panic attack sufferers, the sensations are so severe that the sufferer worries that s/he will either die or go crazy.

If you've ever been in a life-threatening situation, and can recall the terror you felt, you know what a panic attack feels like. These attacks, though, occur without warning and for no apparent reason.

Fear by Association

Even though they often initially have nothing to do with the situation the person is in, they can easily become associated with whatever the person is doing or where the person is at the time they have the panic attack. In a way, it's just like getting sick to your stomach after you've eaten something; it doesn't matter whether or not the food had anything to do with your nausea. Odds are, for weeks, months or even years afterward, just the thought of that food can make you feel queasy. (A friend of mine off a car and got a nausea-inducing concussion after eating Kentucky Fried Chicken; thirty years later, she still can't stand the smell of fried chicken).

So someone who has her first panic attack while driving starts to worry that she'll have another one the next time she gets behind the wheel. This worry, of course, creates more stress, making it more likely that she will have another panic attack. Pretty soon, if this cycle continues, she can't drive at all.

But - wait - now she unexpectedly has a panic attack in the grocery store. The cycle repeats itself and, if left untreated, can result in increased isolation and decreased functioning.

Stress, Panic and Work

According to legal secretary Nancy Topolski's lawsuit, by 2009 she was providing full time support to four attorneys at the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. The fourth, which had been added after a series of layoffs in early 2009, allegedly had a pattern of waiting until the last minute to give her projects, putting her under tremendous pressure and forcing her to rush to get the tasks completed. After requesting a lighter workload several times and informing her supervisor that her job responsibilities were causing her significant stress, she suffered a panic attack at work. After a second panic attack, she was terminated.

Remember that any stressful situation - work-related or not- can trigger a panic attack at the office. Most commonly, it's a build up of lots of stressors over time that initially gets the panic attack ball rolling. Once it starts, though, it can take on a life of its own, adversely affecting the employee's productivity as well as his or her morale.

What You Can Do

If panic attacks are left untreated it can affect the body, emotional aspect as well as the behavior of the sufferer. This can also lead to more serious problems like depression, substance abuse (drugs and alcohol) or physical ailments like ulcers or heart conditions.

  • Don't play doctor. If an employee's symptoms last more than a few minutes, call 9-1-1 (especially if s/he complains of chest pains or has asthma). Better safe than sorry.
  • If you know the employee has a diagnosis of panic disorder, reassure him or her that it will pass. Allow the person to go somewhere where s/he feels comfortable doing deep breathing or relaxation exercises.
  • Understand where s/he is coming from. Most panic attack sufferers work really hard to keep their disorder secret because they're afraid of what others might think. Remember; the person experiencing the panic attacks can't will them away.
  • Provide the employee with referrals or encourage him or her to make doctor's appointments as needed.

The Bottom Line

John Kenneth Galbraith once said, "All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common . . . the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. " As HR professionals, we have the opportunity to lead one person at a time - and encourage our employees to confront - and conquer - the anxiety that holds them back from their peak performance.