The fear of having a panic attack at work and how vigilance doesn’t help

The thought of having a panic attack at work can be too much to handle. Whilst there is obviously no ideal place, the added pressure of our professional environment can be intolerable when the feeling of panic is lingering. This is a place where we show very little of ourselves at the best of times. It is certainly not a place where we break out in anxiety that we cannot control.

The thing with panic attacks is that although they are extremely distressing, what they leave you with can almost be worse. You can feel like you no longer have control. You no longer trust your own mind and body.

Because of this, you have to be constantly vigilant against the onset of anxiety. You become hyper conscious of anything that feels like it could bring on an anxiety attack. This vigilance, however, tends to only be used as an alarm to get you the hell out of a situation. It does not prevent the situation from happening.

It is this vigilance that is actually the problem now.

What happens when we focus our attention on something?

Have you ever been enjoying a day, when someone points out an annoying noise in the background (dog barking, house alarm, lawn mower)? You had been blissfully unaware, but now it is all you can hear.

This is similar to anxiety in work after you’ve suffered a panic attack. Something that before would have caused you a mere irritable level of anxiety, is now a potential trigger for panic. Perhaps you wouldn’t have given it too much thought previously, but now you feel completely out of control. “Why is everything affecting me so much?” “Am I falling apart?”. “Why can’t I trust myself anymore?”

The ultimate fear is that we will have a panic attack in front of the whole office, and everyone will see. We believe our reputations may never recover, and we will never be taken seriously again. We fear that the thoughts that we could have a panic attack predict a panic attack.

Misreading our body heightens the fear

With such vigilance and focus on our anxiety, we will inevitably see ourselves, and our actions in a new light.

  • Our leg hopping up and down nervously, our pen tapping on the desk. Looking out the window for composure. Going to the bathroom or water cooler 5 times an hour. Everyday nervous habits now feel like a neon sign. We are so conscious of every little move we make, we presume it is obvious to those around us.
  • We are out of breath at the top of a flight of stairs, or our heart is pounding at our desk. If we are unfamiliar with the symptoms of anxiety, we can interpret this as something wrong with us physically, which can cause panic.
  • In meetings, our palms are sweaty, our throat is dry, our pulse is racing, and we can’t stop wringing our hands. Is everyone looking at me? I bet they know I’m anxious. I need to get out of here, or I’ll collapse, or scream.

These are not signs that something is wrong, rather the misinterpretation of the symptoms of anxiety. You are feeling anxious in your workplace, your body responds accordingly, and then you interpret that reaction as danger. Catastrophic thoughts lead to a growing sense of panic, and the physical symptoms ramp up… and so the cycle continues.

If you wind this cycle too tightly, the threat of panic at work can cause you to fear leaving the safety of your home. Perhaps you decide to work from home for a day or two. Maybe you take some sick leave. Before you know it, the thought of going back to work is enough to bring on panic.

How to reign the vigilance back in

As you can see, the problem now is that we are anxious about everything, and we feel we have lost control. This is not a good way to be going into work. How has everything become scary all of a sudden? The truth is, the anxiety has always been there, we were just able to manage it before. Now, however, we no longer trust those coping skills for any level of anxiety.

To tackle panic, it is crucial to understand your body, and how it reacts under stress. As frightening as they seem, is it very important to understand that we are in absolutely no physical danger during a panic attack. Sometimes just thinking “this is my body’s way of protecting me” can help in the moment. (see the end of this article for more information on the body’s threat system).

When we are so caught up in our internal state, the world around us loses focus. This is when becoming less vigilant of internal cues can be very beneficial. Knowing what is happening in your body, and why, can really help lowering the need for such vigilance. When we are less focused internally we are also less likely to presume others can see how we feel.

Are people really noticing how anxious you feel you look? Instead of presuming they are, take a look around. It will take you out of your head for a moment, but it will also show you people busy with their day.

For further reading:

Here is an article on the symptoms and triggers of a Panic Attack
Here is an article on the symptoms of anxiety
Here is a diagram of what happens to your body when it is reacting to a threat.

Help information

If you need help please talk to friends, family, a GP, therapist or one of the free confidential helpline services. For a full list of national mental health services see yourmentalhealth.ie.

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Pieta House National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement) or text HELP to 51444 (standard message rates apply)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)

If living in Ireland you can find accredited therapists in your area here:

Stewart Geddes
Stewart Geddes
Stewart Geddes is a Counsellor and Psychotherapist based in South and West Dublin. He specialises in anxiety and how it affects our working lives. He worked for 17 years in multinational companies in the professional arena, and now helps young professionals recognise, understand, and overcome their anxiety. You can find him at themoodlab.ie, on facebook, or twitter.
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