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"My first panic attack came out of nowhere and hit me at work one day. I got up right away and went outside for some fresh air. I felt better so I went back in. The next day, I had two or three attacks at work. The third day I didn't want to go back."
Panic attacks along with other anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental health problems and can arise in a number of ways. Research indicates the presence of an underlying biological vulnerability in afflicted people. In the presence of stress, these people become afraid, seek to avoid a situation or emotion perceived as threatening, have catastrophic thoughts, and may eventually develop pronounced avoidance behavior and physical symptoms as well as associated depression.
Stress in the workplace can bring on or aggravate a panic disorder. Even if stressors outside of work are involved, an employee's performance can decline because he or she fears being embarrassed by having an attack at work.
Individuals suffering panic attacks may go to great lengths to hide their symptoms because they fear ridicule. Symptoms include heart palpitations, dizziness, tingling in the hands or feet, chest pain or discomfort, feelings of unreality or disorientation, sweating, faintness, trembling or shortness of breath and stomach distress. Employees may be concerned about these symptoms, fearing medical problems such as heart attacks. Eventually, the employee may want to flee the work place to go to an emergency room or escape to a safer location.
If a supervisor notices a decline in the performance of an employee who has always been a good worker-- if for example the employee starts avoiding certain tasks or staying at home-- it would be helpful to try to identify the presence of panic symptoms.
The employee should also undergo a medical exam to rule out any underlying conditions which can produce panic-like symptoms.
Fortunately, panic attacks are highly treatable. For more severe problems, understanding and encouraging the employee to seek counseling can result in productivity being resumed and can often avoid a stress claim for disability. Reassurance, possibly with the aid of self-help books or tapes, may be all some employees need. These publications are readily available at many bookstores.
Treatments used by therapists usually include cognitive/behavioral coping techniques which are often integrated with medication for optimal outcome.
Panic sufferers are usually tensing their body in a way that increases symptoms. Helpful coping strategies include: muscle relaxation exercises, breath retraining, visualization, gradual exposure to all avoided situations, and appropriate labeling of emotions, since any strong emotion can trigger a panic attack. They are encouraged to replace their fearful thoughts with more rational ones. For example, "I'm going to faint" could be changed to "I've never fainted before and there is no evidence I'm going to faint now."
Finally, predicting setbacks can be useful. If a return of symptoms is seen as part of a normal learning curve, the supervisor and affected employee will understand that progress is still occurring.
A good employee experiencing a panic disorder need not be fired or suspended if the company realizes what is happening and that solutions exist. It makes sense to leave these employees on the job and help them find relief.
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