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What to do if you experience a panic attack at work

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While conversations around mental health are improving, people often still shy away from talking about how it affects their work life. 

There is undoubtedly a perceived ‘weakness’ and fragility surrounding those working with mental health issues, hence, many of us don’t feel comfortable enough to disclose it to our bosses. Yet, a YouGov study has shown that 1 in 4 students suffer. So, what do you do if you experience anxiety or a panic attack whilst you’re working?

I have recently begun a summer job, and, being completely new to working in a bar, I have expectedly made a few mistakes. However, after a long, tiresome and busy shift, I forgot to print a drinks ticket, leading to feelings of guilt and personal shaming by some of the management. 

As an advocate for cathartic crying, I tried to get it out of my system, but the more I tried to suppress my anxiety to continue serving customers, the worse it became. I ended up having a panic attack in the storeroom, becoming increasingly worked up because I was worried about how I would be thought of for reacting in such a way. After getting myself into such a state I couldn’t continue to work, but luckily received support from my co-workers, who said that they experienced a lot of anxiety and took criticism more personally in their first jobs as well.

Experiencing a panic attack is never nice, especially if it happens when you're at work.

So, here’s what you can do to try and lessen the effect of anxiety and panic disorder at work:

1. Acknowledge the existence of your anxiety, and letting it take its course

Our bodies work in a funny way; the more we tell ourselves to stop crying, or the more we tell ourselves to stop wanting that chocolate cake, the more we do. Whether it’s because you’ve made a mistake, or it’s stressfully busy - excuse yourself to a quiet place. Taking a few moments to implement breathing techniques to feel calmer will stop the anxiety from festering, you’ll be less aware of it, and less prone to making mistakes. This may stop it from spiralling into a bigger panic attack which takes a lot longer to recover from.

2. Counter the thought that is causing the panic attack

Remember that you have gotten through panic attacks before, and tell yourself that whatever has happened is not your fault: forgive yourself, everyone makes mistakes from time to time – whether this is your first job or you’re really experienced. It is important to challenge the irrational thoughts that are rushing through your head, ultimately making the attack worse.

3. Find yourself a safe place

This is one of the most important things you can do. It will help you to be able to remove yourself from the anxiety-inducing situation and feel comfortable enough to do whatever you need to, whether that's crying or wait out a panic attack.

4. Talk to co-workers

The chances are, many co-workers will have experienced mental health issues, or, at least, the guilt that you are feeling from making a mistake. Having someone there can make you feel less alone. Alternatively, it’s helpful to phone someone who can calm you down or help distract you from the anxiety.

5. Don’t be ashamed of feeling this way

From my experience, being anxious about the presence of anxiety just becomes a vicious circle – there is nothing wrong with being anxious. Be proud of the way that you continue to overcome it in everyday life, in the knowledge that it doesn’t and won’t stop you when you are able to get control of it.

Having a panic attack at work is scary and can stop you from being able to do your job, all whilst being surrounded by people with whom you’re not overly familiar. It’s important to remember that you have been hired for a reason: you are good enough, and the people that you work for and with do care about your mental health.

Understandably, bosses are just as focused as you on getting the job done – but it’s so important not to take criticism personally, no matter how harsh it might be. As in many situations that derive from mental health, there will, of course, be people that don’t understand. The best thing you can do is just focus on your ability to work through it, knowing that it will pass.

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