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Panic attacks at work can feel ‘nauseous and suffocating’ — here’s how to manage them

A Vancouver-based psychologist offers five steps to follow if you ever have a panic attack while on the job.

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.

“I began feeling nauseous, flushed, having a tight chest, racing thoughts, fast heart beat and was afraid to talk too much due to the amount of nausea I was experiencing,” she tells Global News. “I felt weak and afraid of the anxiety. I felt trapped.”

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.

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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.

READ MORE: Researchers say there are 27 distinct categories of emotions

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.

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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.

READ MORE: When anxiety turns into anger, experts say you shouldn’t ignore it

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?

Badali says the purpose of panic is to protect humans from danger. “When a person detects danger, the brain sends messages to our autonomic nervous system. This system is involved with preparing us for action and controlling the body’s energy levels. One branch of the autonomic nervous system [is] the sympathetic nervous system ” she says.

“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.

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“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.

READ MORE: Follow this one tip the next time you’re stressed, anxious or nervous

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.

2. Realistic thinking. Try not to panic about panic. Remind yourself that the panic is not harmful. Your body is having a false alarm [and] the alarm will stop ringing in time. If you need to, you can exit the room without anyone having to know you are having a panic attack.

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.

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The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression 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.

arti.patel@globalnews.ca
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