Panic Attacks: What to Do If They Happen at Work


| 3 min read

closeup of a person with hands on their head.
You’re sitting at your desk at work, going through your list of to-dos, when all of a sudden a wave of fear and anxiety rushes over you. This isn’t the start to a horror story—this is the start of a panic attack at work. And if it’s ever happened to you, you know how tough it can be to deal with in the moment. You don’t want to draw more attention to yourself, so you try to hide what’s going on from your colleagues. But that can just make you feel even more anxious. Here’s the thing, though: This is likely something others in your office have experienced. Twenty-eight percent of employees in America have had an anxiety or panic attack at work. Here’s what you can do the next time one hits:

Symptoms of Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can come on at any time of the day, in any setting. They can last up to 10 minutes and can you leave you feeling paralyzed—some even say it feels like you’re having a heart attack. Symptoms of a panic attack include:
  • Racing heart
  • Faintness
  • Dizziness
  • Tingling or numbness in your hands
  • An overwhelming sense of terror or impending doom
  • Sweatiness
  • Chills
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Feeling like you’re losing control

How to Handle Panic Attacks at Work

People who deal with anxiety disorders, like panic attacks, can find it difficult to be in stressful environments or situations. That’s why they sometimes happen at work. When you’re dealing with a panic attack at the office, calm yourself down with these tips:
  • Find a spot to be alone: If you are experiencing a panic attack in front of co-workers, inform them that you need to leave by excusing yourself to go to the bathroom or saying you need to take a personal phone call outside of the room. If you’re in your office, close the door.
  • Organize your worries: Stop your thoughts from spinning out of control by identifying them and putting them in order of importance (you can do this mentally or actually write them down). This can sometimes be enough to start calming you down.
  • Think positively: Tell yourself that you are in control—this simple reminder can help push negative thoughts out of your mind.
  • Relax your muscles: With a panic attack, your whole body will begin to tense up. Take a moment to focus on relaxing your muscles from head to toe. By putting your attention on something simple like this, you can calm down more quickly.

How to Avoid Future Panic Attacks

Outside of knowing how to handle a panic attack in the moment, you should start to understand how to prevent them from happening down the road. Start to recognize triggers, like overlapping deadlines or meeting with leadership, so you know when a panic attack could come on. The more aware you are of these, the better you can handle them. Keep in mind things or places that calm you down—maybe it’s a quick walk outside or the act of making yourself some tea—and when panic begins to build, head right for those. If you find yourself dealing with panic attacks, it's important to seek professional help--either by talking to your primary care physician or a mental health professional. This will help you get to the root of the issue and get a treatment plan in place that involves therapy, medication or a combination of both. For more on improving mental health at the office, check out these blogs:
MI Blues Perspectives is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association