Panic Attacks in the Workplace:
Recognizing the Signs
By Dr. Nancy O’Reilly
Michael was a star salesperson. A company had recently hired him to
help them close several major deals with some of their largest
clients. In his line of work, Michael often dealt with pressure from
deadlines. In the midst of closing on two deals, Michael received an
alarming phone call. His mother was ill – she had just suffered a
stroke and was in the emergency room.
Michael felt like his world was falling apart. In his office, his
body started to react. His breathing became labored and his heart
raced, while his actions seemed to be slowing down. His manager had
no idea what to do – so he took Michael outside for some fresh air.
That seemed to calm him. Finally when Michael had a chance to talk,
he quietly explained to his boss that he had a history of panic
attacks and this had been one of them.
Panic attacks affect the behavior, the body and the emotions and can
paralyze the person. If left untreated, these attacks can lead to a
more chronic medical condition such as substance abuse, depression
or ulcers. Unfortunately, panic attacks can happen anywhere, at any
time. In the workplace, the results of panic attacks may include
poor job performance, possible termination or the loss of a valuable
employee. The symptoms include:
Difficulty breathing, feeling as though you can’t get enough air
that is almost paralyzing
Dizziness, lightheadedness or nausea
Trembling, sweating, shaking
Choking, chest pains
flashes or sudden chills
Tingling in fingers or toes (“pins and needles”)
that you are going crazy or about to die
One in about 75 people is diagnosed with panic disorder. In
addition, these symptoms are not warranted and there are no
particular reasons or circumstances that they should be occurring
(no danger exists).
The attacks can occur without warning. It is also important to
understand the level of fear experienced is way out of proportion to
the actual situation; often, in fact it is completely unreal to what
the person is doing or the location they are in. Lastly, an attack
passes within a few minutes; however other attacks can be repeated
and can recur for hours.
A panic attack is not dangerous, but to the person experiencing the
attack, it is terrifying and very real. The person describes
feeling “crazy” or feels like they are losing control. The social
impairment for a person(s) with panic attacks can also lead to
complete social withdrawal. The avoidance of these persons becomes
a paramount issue as they try to avoid all social and physical
settings that may trigger future attacks. (APA 2007)
The workplace can be impacted when an employee has panic attacks.
Talented and successful workers may leave jobs that are perceived as
possible triggers for future attacks. A staff member may be passed
over for a position because travel is required and they are fearful
of flying or driving a car because of past panic attacks. It is not
unusual for a person with panic attacks to be embarrassed of their
condition and therefore keep it from co-workers and supervisors.
Often, the condition is hidden until a situation arises when the
attacks can longer be ignored.
When a panic attack occurs in the workplace, here are some steps you
Deal with the situation quickly. If an employee is having what looks
to be a panic attack remain calm and do not overact. If the panic
attacks persist you may want to call 9-1-1 for professional help.
During the attack, some helpful coping strategies include:
Remember that any stressful situation, or one that causes a strong
emotional response, can trigger a panic attack. In the future, the
employee experiencing the panic attacks may need to take it slow at
work. Supervisors should consider the situation carefully and offer
up support. Working together with other staff members and sharing
the workload is an option. The employee suffering the panic attack
may need to see a doctor/mental health professional, or they may
need some time off from work to have appropriate treatment.
Be supportive and empathetic. Do not jump to conclusions. People
with panic attacks often fear telling others of their disorder,
because they are afraid they will be viewed as “crazy” or abnormal.
Remember that the person experiencing panic attacks cannot make them
go away. These attacks are not a sign of weakness or poor
character. They are very real to the person experiencing them and
their bodies react to these fears as if they are real.
If you are a supervisor, encourage the employee to talk about the
situation with you in private. This may be a first-time panic
attack, or the employee may have them frequently. There may be
stressors at work causing the attacks, or the attack may have been
triggered by something that happened in their personal lives.
Many companies have an Employee Assistance Program on-site or
contract with a mental health organization, which provides help for
employees and their families. These programs are in place so that
co-workers and supervisors do not take on job responsibilities they
are not qualified nor licensed to do. Supervisors should make
appropriate referrals to insure the employee receives needed help
and that his or her job performance is not compromised. Fitness for
duty is an issue for all supervisors when faced with an employee
with a medical or mental health condition. If there is no such
program in place, you may want to ask your supervisor or upper-level
manager about establishing one.
The very best assistance for any person with panic attacks is to
understand they are not going crazy, nor will they die. Panic
attacks should be taken seriously and the person should be seen by a
qualified medical or mental health professional as soon as possible.
Proper diagnosis and treatment are the keys for recovery.
For more information about Panic Disorder and other related anxiety-
related conditions please contact your local or the National Mental
Health Association or the American Psychological Association (APA).
These associations will be able to get you more information
about panic attacks and will also offer referrals for treatment if
Panic attacks can affect an employee’s productivity, as well as the
morale and effectiveness of the workplace. By recognizing the signs
and understanding what kind of help can be offered, you can be
better prepared to deal with a panic attack.
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Nancy D. O’Reilly.
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