Why I’m Glad My Co-Workers Witnessed My Panic Attack


Last week my anxiety nightmare came true: I had a panic attack in front of my co-workers.

I experienced my first massive panic attack when I was 27, driving home from my father’s burial. I was convinced I was having a heart attack, but I didn’t tell anyone because my father had just died from one. I felt embarrassed and dramatic, so I decided to keep it hidden to avoid drawing attention to myself. My grief opened a padlocked door that’s now permanently propped open, and I never know when the next panic attack will strike.

The story I keep telling myself is that I’m not someone who has panic attacks at work. I’m simply not allowed. At home? Sure. At airports, on airplanes, in other public places while surrounded by strangers? Yes. But somehow I’ve managed to keep this part of my anxiety hidden from my professional world. Why keep it hidden? Shame. I play the role of a high-functioning “anxiety survivor,” which means I might sit in my car for 20 minutes before I walk into the office, but at least I’m not brining my anxiety with me. My anxiety will just have to wait for me until I get back to my car for my lunch break or when I leave work.

I felt having panic attacks at the office — which for me means hyperventilating, uncontrollable sobbing and a general certainty that I will, in fact, die within minutes — meant I’ll never gain or keep the trust of my co-workers. I’ll never get promoted. My direct reports won’t respect me. The men in my office will think I’ve come completely unhinged, and I’ll be the “hormonal, crying lady who can’t handle the pressures of agency life.” The women will think so, too. And if my clients know that once panic hits any new email or phone call starts the cycle all over again, they’ll pull their business. Or they’ll ask to have me replaced. This is the story I tell myself.

But fiction has been replaced with fact, and I no longer have to wonder how my co-workers will react. Because now I know.

My panic attack started at 9:13 a.m. I know this because I documented the start time on a Post-it note at my desk. It had been a few years since my last attack, but I remembered the worst of it usually lasted only 10 to 15 minutes. I was allowing myself until 9:30 to break down, because I needed to hop on a conference call. I shut my office door and turned on some music, thinking I could outsmart the adrenaline that was about to betray my professional image and turn me into a sobbing mess. My anxiety refused to adhere to my 15-minute timeline, and my panic attack lasted for two hours, off and on.

If you’ve never had a panic attack, I can only imagine what it might look like to witness an adult hyperventilating and crying because they read an email that caused them stress. Or because someone asked them a question they didn’t know the answer to. Or because they were sitting silently, minding their own business, and their brain decided to play a game of “Everything is horrible and we’re all going to die!” If you’re part of the club that has experienced this nightmare, you know it can feel like your body is under attack, held hostage by some outside force that’s manning the controls. The force has locked you in a room and has made the walls close in on you so fast you’re sure you’ll be crushed. With one hand, the force is choking you, making it impossible to breath. Then it spins you around until you’re dizzy, nauseous and can’t see straight. And in the biggest jerk move of all, it’s filled the room with chopped onions so you can never stop crying.

My panic attacks were spaced out in five to 10 minute intervals. I’d finally catch my breath, walk down the hall to grab a drink of water, and then burst into tears at the sight of the first concerned colleague who glanced my way. On this particular day, we were in crisis mode, and it wasn’t an option to leave and work from home. (At least, again, that’s the story I told myself.)

In the middle of an agency crisis, I was deep in my own emotional/physical one. And a dozen colleagues had front-row seats to watch my breakdown.

I shut my office door and once again sobbed, this time out of embarrassment and shame. I’m a 36-year-old account supervisor at an agency, and now my career is finished. (When I tell myself stories, I lean way, way toward the dramatic.)

But something incredible happened. A male colleague who’s been with my company for 20 years entered my office, shut the door and asked if he could say a prayer for me. He told me about his own anxiety struggles. Another colleague brought me Kleenex and water, and she started telling me about her anxiety battles. Then my wonderful direct report stopped by to let me know she’d handled the work crisis — and to tell me how grateful she was to work for a company where people care about each other.

One by one, co-workers came out of the woodwork to share their struggles and stories. They weren’t whispering “Look at her,” they were opening up and saying, “Me, too.”

These co-workers were my lifeline, because we were able to speak in shorthand. All I had to say was, “I’m in the middle of a panic attack,” and they rallied around me because they’ve been there.

But there are still so many who don’t have a frame of reference for what it means to experience these kinds of attacks, and this week I can see they’re treating me with kid gloves. I’m fairly certain they feel embarrassed for me. I absolutely know they love me and are concerned for me. They want to help me manage my stress, lighten my workload and come to my rescue. And I love them so much for that, so I need to help them understand I don’t need special treatment. I need to be understood. Even though I’m deeply embarrassed, I’m glad they witnessed my panic attack — if only so I can help start a conversation about anxiety. Battling anxiety while in a professional setting does not mean that you are unhinged, un-hirable, unreliable, or un-promotable. It just means you’re one of the 40 million people battling the most common mental illness in America.

Battling panic attacks does not mean you are overreacting to life’s everyday stressors. It means your body has perceived a threat, launched you into fight-or-flight mode, and is doing everything it can to flee the danger it senses. Are these triggers “irrational”? Perhaps, to an outside observer. Are the perceived threats real to the person experiencing the attack? Absolutely. Do I wish I could have made it to the safety of my car before emotionally breaking down? Um, yes. Of course, I do. Crying in front of my co-workers was mortifying. Am I going to feel embarrassment or shame? Last week, my answer was, “Um, yes. Of course, I am.” But that’s the sneaky thing about shame. It wants us to hide our anxiety, depression and fear, putting on a façade when we walk out the front door — making us think we’re only worthy if we bottle everything up and never let anyone see us struggle. Today, I’m wearing my anxiety like a badge of honor. I’m raising my hand and asking for help. I’m trying to model for my colleagues that they don’t have to fear for their jobs if their brains and bodies some days get the best of them. And I’m trying to use this as an opportunity to continue fighting the stigma around anxiety and depression, showing others just how strong we are that every day we get out of bed, armor up and show up for the fight.

Image via Thinkstock.

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