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What Should I Do If I Have a Panic Attack at Work?

I had my first panic attack in 2014. When I Googled my symptoms—rapid heartbeat, numbness in my hands and left arm, difficulty breathing—I found they were similar to the signs of a heart attack. The doctors at the ER ran an EKG test and found that my heart was fine. Instead, my body was seizing up in terror—it was a panic attack.

Then, last November, I had one in the office. I did not have a demanding workload at the time, but suddenly I felt scared for no reason at all. The numbing tingles returned and my heart started beating faster. Since I knew from experience what was happening, I was determined to self-remedy the situation. I stepped outside into the misting rain and walked around without an umbrella for 15 minutes. I also paced myself with some breathing exercises. It worked; I had started to calm down before I went back inside.

While I wouldn’t recommend walking around umbrella-less in a drizzle again, I felt like I did the right thing in the moment. But if it happens again, was that the best course of action I could take? I reached out to a few psychologists for their advice on what to do if you have a panic attack in the workplace.

Take deep, slow breaths.
Licensed clinical psychologist Giulia Suro, Ph.D., understands just how stressful it can be to have a panic or anxiety attack at work. Often, we become self-conscious and don’t want others to know what’s happening. “An effective strategy for slowing things down is to engage in slow, deep breaths from the diaphragm,” she says. “Deep breathing fills our blood stream with oxygen. This slows down the adrenaline and cortisol that our brain is releasing as a response to anxiety.”

Wait, how do I breathe from my diaphragm? Ashley Smith, licensed clinical therapist, can guide you through the process. “Put one hand on your chest and the other hand on your stomach,” she says. “Breathe so that the hand on your chest stays still and the hand on your stomach rises and falls.”

Get high-tech help.
Not able to leave the office? Helen Odessky, licensed clinical psychologist, recommends downloading an app to manage anxiety. Her favorite for adults: Calm, which guides you through a quick meditation, which will slow down your breathing and heart rate.

Get grounded in the present moment.
Can you name 20 things you see around you? Count backwards from 100 by 7? Drink a glass of very cold water? If you’re actively panicking, Suro advises using these “tricks” to feel grounded in the present moment and quickly get out of your head.

Take a break.
If you’re panicking or feel a sense of impending doom, get outside. A short walk will relax your body and allow your mind to focus on new surroundings. Or if going out isn’t an option, you can also move to another office or the bathroom for a brief change of scenery.

Create a mantra.
Suro says it’s important to remind yourself that this will not last forever. Come up with a mantra that reminds you of this moment—something simple like, “It’s almost over,” or “I’ll feel calm again.” Repeat it to yourself as a gentle reminder that this too shall pass.

Heather Taylor is the Senior Editor of PopIcon, a blog about brand mascots powered by Advertising Week. Her bylines have been published on Business Insider, HelloGiggles, Brit + Co, The Drum, and BettyConfidential. Find her on Twitter @howveryheather.

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