Melanie Luxenberg once had a panic attack at work after a colleague made a snarky comment towards her.
The 33-year-old law clerk from Thornhill, Ont., says the colleague was once a former friend, and when she made the comment, a flood of bad memories came back to her.
Luxenberg calmed herself down by using her willpower and strength. She used visualization techniques to distract her mind and when she had the chance, texted her husband to distract her.
She is one of many Canadians who has experienced a panic attack at work: a moment that can be scary, confusing and often embarrassing. And when it does strike suddenly, it’s important to understand why you’re experiencing this panic.
Dr. Melanie Badali, a registered psychologist and director of AnxietyBC, says when they do happen, it is important to track them.
“Tracking can help people recall events more accurately, identify conditions and triggers of panic attacks, and evaluate progress,” she tells Global News. “For some people, completing self-monitoring or tracking forms can help them take on a new perspective – that of an observer or a scientist who is having panic symptoms rather than a victim being bossed around or bullied by those feelings and thoughts.”
However, she says if you’re tracking them, it is important to bring them up to a mental health professional. “Tracking symptoms is best done with other treatment strategies, ideally with the help of a trained mental health professional.”
What does it feel like?
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), a panic attack can cause sudden fear or discomfort and often includes symptoms like a pounding heart, sweating, trembling, sensations of shortness of breath and feelings of choking.
Other symptoms can include chest pain, nausea, dizziness, chills or a fear of dying or losing control.
The ADAA notes some people can experience fewer than four of these symptoms, and this is referred to limited-symptom panic attacks.
Badali adds a panic attack is a sudden surge of intense fear or discomfort that comes on fast.
For Luxenberg, during the panic attack, it can feel like an eternity, even if it lasts for 15 minutes. “I can’t breathe, I feel like I am suffocating,” she says. “I am so afraid, but if I move I might feel worse, so I just stay here.”
What causes them?
“Activation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to panic attack symptoms. The good news is that eventually the other branch of the autonomic nervous system — the parasympathetic nervous system — will kick in and relax the body,” she continues.
She adds panic does not last forever or spiral into damaging levels.
How to manage panic attacks
Luxenberg says for her, during a panic attack, counting backwards from 100, using visualization exercises like picturing a chalkboard, and going outside for fresh air has helped.
“Finding a breathing technique that works to calm oneself down is important. It is hard to take deep breaths when you are panicked. I start with inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth and just keep at it until I feel my heart rate slow down,” she says.
Badali has developed a five-part system for managing panic attacks called “BRAVE.”
1. Body knowledge: Learn the facts about panic. A panic attack is your body preparing you to deal with danger. If there is no danger – your body is giving you a false alarm.
3. Accept: Accept that once your body’s alarm system has been triggered, it will take a while before it settles down.
4. Validate: Panic attacks are real and very uncomfortable. But they are not deadly and you do not have to let them stop you. You may be suffering but you are also strong. “V” is also for victory over anxiety.
5. End: Panic attacks end. It is not your job to stop or end a panic attack. It is your job to ride the wave of panic. Surf it or dive into it. Trying to fight or end panic tends to make it worse. You can handle the panic attack.
Where to get help
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.