Rapid breathing, a racing heart, or upset stomach – alongside the intense fear, panic attacks can come with some scary physical side-effects. With so much of our lives spent at work, and it often being a stressful environment, knowing some practical steps you can take to support a co-worker with panic disorder could make a world of difference

Panic attacks are, by their very nature, a scary experience. And even when you’re not the one having the attack, knowing how to help can be tough. The situation can become even trickier to navigate when it happens in the workplace.

Do you call an ambulance? Do you suggest meditation? What’s appropriate?

The first thing to note is that everyone is unique. Panic attacks can look different for each person. As they share many of the same symptoms as a heart attack, it can be hard to know which they’re experiencing. If you’re in any doubt, please call 999 and get medical assistance.

If you’re sure it’s a panic attack, remember that everyone will have their own ways in which they prefer to be supported. This is why communication before an attack, where possible, is key.

Before an attack

colleagues sitting together and chatting

If you know a colleague is prone to panic attacks, have a conversation with them about it. Ask them if there are any signs you can look out for that may suggest they are feeling panicky (for example, they may get up for walks more often).

You can also ask what helps them when they’re experiencing an attack. Some people want to be alone when they have a panic attack, while others appreciate company and support. Ask them if there’s anything you can say or do to help. If they say no, check to see if there’s anyone they would like you to call for help.

During an attack

Your first instinct may be to tell them to ‘calm down’ or ‘relax’, but this can be unhelpful – after all, if they could simply relax, they would. Instead, it’s important to recognise that what’s happening is a scary experience for them, but reassure them that you are there if they need you.

Ask if there’s anything you can do to help, or if they want to go outside for some fresh air. You can suggest a breathing exercise if you know this is something they’re open to. If you’re at work, it can be helpful to let others know what’s happening, such as HR or their manager (if they give you consent to do so). You could also offer to take their calls while they’re away from their desk.

Some people find it helpful to be distracted. This may mean talking to them about something completely unrelated to work, or encouraging them to play a game on their phone. Again, this isn’t suitable for everyone, so establishing what they find useful is really key.

After an attack

Panic attacks typically last between five and 20 minutes, but can last more than an hour. Try not to assume you know when their panic attack is over; wait for them to tell you. Once you know it’s finished, validate their experience, and offer some space for them to talk about how they’re feeling. For example: “That must have been scary for you, do you feel like talking or do you want to rest?”

Once you know it’s finished, validate their experience, and offer some space for them to talk about how they’re feeling

Taking the time to talk can help both of you to feel calmer. You can also check in to see if what you did was helpful for them, or if they would prefer you do something different in the future. Finally, be sure to check on them throughout the day. If they’re finding it hard to work, maybe suggest they take the rest of the day off.

Sometimes anxiety and panic attacks are a symptom of workplace stress. If this is the case, encourage your colleague to speak to their manager and/or HR for support, and ask if there’s anything you can do to make things less stressful.

Finally, it’s important to remember to look after yourself after helping someone with a panic attack. Making time for self-care will help you feel better mentally and physically, so you can continue to support others.

If you and your colleagues want to be better prepared for situations like panic attacks, consider getting trained in mental health first aid. Happiful and Simpila Healthy Solutions provide courses across the UK to teach you how to listen, reassure and respond, even in a crisis. Learn more and find a course near you at happiful.com/mental-health-first-aid-training