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Understanding Panic Attacks

Understanding Panic Attacks

It has been reported that fears around Covid-19 have put an acute emotional strain on people. Increased anxiety is one of the conditions which has become prevalent with worries about family, health, and social distancing. As lockdown has been relaxed and some of us are returning to work, there is the chance that anxiety will escalate to the point of having a panic attack. Read on to find out more about panic attacks and how to handle them in the workplace.

What is a panic attack?

Those experiencing a panic attack often feel the following:

“I’m going to die”

“I feel faint”

“I think I’m about to have a heart attack”

“I’m finding it difficult to breathe”

“Everything seems blurry”

“I feel really sick”

Your colleague may feel like they’re losing control and, in some cases, think that they are about to die. Most attacks last between 10 and 30 minutes and can be a symptom of prolonged stress or worry.

Understanding panic attacks

Panic attacks are grouped into two categories: expected or unexpected. An expected attack is usually associated with a specific concern or trigger, such as fear of flying, exams or being in crowds. Unexpected panic attacks have no obvious trigger and can seem to happen for no apparent reason.

Panic attacks are typically experienced as a result of misinterpreting physical symptoms of anxiety. Heart palpitations may be mistaken for symptoms of a heart attack, breathlessness or feeling faint may be taken as a sign that a person will collapse or die, and racing thoughts can lead a person to think that they are losing control of their mind.

These misinterpretations – which a person may be unaware that they are doing – can trigger a panic attack, which seems to appear out of the blue.

Helping a colleague who is having an attack

The most important thing is to stay calm and be kind. It can be very distressing seeing a teammate unwell, but it is crucial to offer support and compassion. Sit with them until the anxiety has passed, and if you have one, contact your mental health first aider.  

  • Be reassuring 
    Assure the person that they’re having a panic attack and that it’s not dangerous. Explain that while it can feel overwhelming, the symptoms will pass. Talk in short sentences and speak in a clear reassuring manner. Be patient and stay with them throughout the attack.

  • Listen 
    Listen to their concerns in a non-judgemental way and ask them if they’d like to move to somewhere quieter or offer them a glass of water. Don’t presume that you know what’s best for them – everyone experiences things differently.

  • Stay with them 
    Stay with the person and ignore any urge to move away. Most panic attacks last between 10 and 30 minutes, so don’t leave the person after a minute or two. They need you to be there for them for the duration of the panic attack and it could make things worse if you suddenly leave. 

  • Encourage conversation
    Encourage them to talk as it will help to distract them from their thoughts and regulate their breathing. Try to get them to talk about how they are feeling, but don’t persist in asking questions in case they become more panicky.

  • Breathing control 
    Breathing techniques can help bring someone back to a calmer state. Slow the breathing down: breathe in through the nose for three seconds then slowly exhale through the mouth for three seconds. Continue for at least ten rounds.

  • Recommend support 
    After the episode is over, you can recommend support strategies such apps like Headspace and Calm, or encourage them to see their GP if they haven't already. Other practical tips include cutting back on caffeine as this can exacerbate anxiety and regular exercise can help reduce stress.

Grounding techniques

Another recognised way to calm the physical symptoms and help increase feelings of control is known as ‘grounding’. There are various versions, but a popular one is the mindfulness-based 5-4-3-2-1 technique where you note and pay attention to: 

  • Five things you can see
  • Four things you can feel
  • Three things you can hear
  • Two things you can smell 
  • One thing you can taste


This exercise is designed to relax you, ground you in the present, and calm any negative racing thoughts. 

For more information on managing panic attacks visit the Mind website. You can also support the mental health of your team members by downloading their free Wellness Action Plans.

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