Thoroughly unpleasant and hard to deal with at the best of times, panic attacks at work are even worse. We consider the causes, signs and triggers of a panic attack and advise on how to help.

Anxiety about work, the need to appear professional and a sense of obligation to an employer can magnify the symptoms, worsening the attack.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden, unexpected wave of debilitating fear. It often strikes with no warning whatsoever and doesn’t always have a clear trigger. This abrupt onset is accompanied by physical symptoms that tend to mimic those of heart disease or breathing disorders, causing even more distress. Sufferers can feel as though they are choking, having a heart attack and about to die. Afterwards, they are left feeling drained and tired.

What causes a panic attack?

The attack could be a one-off, and never happen again — but it is common to experience recurrent attacks. They are often triggered by stressful situations — being exposed to heights, anxiety about important deadlines, social situations — anything which makes the individual feel unable to escape. This is because a panic attack is a triggering of the body’s fight-or-flight response.

The triggers are different for everyone. And some don’t have triggers at all — they can happen anywhere, at any time.

What are the signs of a panic attack?

Panic attacks come on swiftly, usually last under 20 minutes and end abruptly. It’s not always easy to spot when someone is in the grip of an attack. But if you feel any of the following — or see someone in your workplace suffering from these signs — then it’s likely that an attack is happening:

  • fast, shallow breathing that’s difficult to control

  • a rapid heartbeat, tight chest and the sense that their heart could burst

  • shaking, trembling hands

  • tightness in the throat, difficulty swallowing and a sensation of choking

  • dissociation, a feeling of “unreality” and lightness

  • feeling dizzy and faint

  • excessive sweating

  • nausea

  • hot or cold flushes, sometimes both at once

  • a fear of dying, loss of control or a sense that they’re losing their mind.

This is because the body is in a fight-or-flight situation and is flooded with adrenalin, which causes the breathing to quicken, muscles to tense and the heart rate to skyrocket.

How to stop a panic attack

It’s not easy, but panic attacks can be brought under control. If someone you know is having a panic attack, help them by:

  • staying by them, and remaining calm

  • offering medication — only if it’s theirs, and you know why they take it

  • speaking in short, clear sentences

  • encouraging them to breathe into a plastic or paper bag or, if no bag is available, to take short, deliberate inhalations through the nose or mouth in order to reduce hyperventilation.

Although panic attacks are not life-threatening, the fear of having another attack can negatively impact an individual’s life and curtail their activities, so someone having recurring panic attacks should get treatment. This is usually a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

What can an employer do?

If an employee is experiencing panic attacks regularly, they are likely to be suffering from panic disorder and need professional help to manage it. Encourage them to speak to their GP about it.

If the employee can pinpoint certain triggers, consider reasonable adjustments to combat them; flexible working, a different seating arrangement or headphones to avoid sensory overload are good examples of this.

Allocate a “buddy”: rather than being left alone to “ride out” the attack, most sufferers appreciate having a comforting person around to calm them down or distract them.

For further information and support, call Health Assured on 0844 892 2493; they offer a specialist employee assistance programme.

Last reviewed 28 May 2019