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I have a panic attack every few days (often at work), if a function isn't documented properly, or the wrong font is used somewhere, or almost anything.

I can very easily land in a place of absolute terror such as the world seems to be falling apart, and I'm frozen in place thinking: "I need to get out of here. I need to get out of here. If I stab myself with this pen can I go to the hospital and get out of here. OK. Look normal. Look normal. Look normal"

That will go on for about an hour. Amazingly this hasn't been picked up by anyone. I think this is because I'm not panicking subconsciously so I can still hold discussions and such on autopilot.

How can I handle the panic attacks in the workplace so as not to come across as difficult, risk losing my job or the respect of my colleagues or otherwise cause problems for myself and/or others?

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    Hi Anon and welcome to The Workplace! I appreciate the thoroughness of your post, but unfortunately this question is not on topic according to the rules of our site and is likely to be closed. Please try and edit your question to be more focused on a specific problem in a work environment so that you can get better answers and upvotes. I would also encourage you to seek assistance from a mental health professional, there is no shame in getting help. – Matt Giltaji Aug 5 '14 at 2:39
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    @MattGiltaji I refined the scope of the question. – Ashton War Aug 5 '14 at 2:49
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    Excellent work @Anon! Its an interesting question and I'm looking forward to the answers. I hope to see more contributions for you in the future :D – Matt Giltaji Aug 5 '14 at 2:52
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    You should see medical help for the panic attacks if you have not already done so. There are treatments, both drug-based and not, available for panic disorder. – PurpleVermont Aug 5 '14 at 4:54
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    I understand that this has been closed since at least part of the answer is medical rather than workplace-related. However, would it be OK for reopen if it were rephrased as e.g. "How can I handle the panic attacks in the workplace so as not to come across as difficult, risk losing my job or the respect of my colleagues or otherwise cause problems for myself and/or others?" Because that could be very helpful for others. – Jenny D Aug 5 '14 at 9:00
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I - like yourself - experience panic attacks under similar circumstances, and often feel like I have nowhere else to go and cannot do anything to overcome it.

I agree with the other posters that seeking help from a mental health professional is a good idea, and is something I myself do. You may not find the right person straight away, but don't despair - if the councellor you end up seeing doesn't feel right, or doesn't communicate with you in a way that helps you just find another.

One thing you can try (which helps to get a true analysis of the situation): Step back, and write a list of:

  • what has gone wrong;
  • what is needed to fix the issues;
  • rank the issues and start with the easiest fixes first.

This last step is important, as fixing the small things first gets a couple of wins under your belt which makes for dealing with the harder issues a little bit easier.

I hope this helps, and hang in there dude. You can do it!

(Using resources such as stack exchange is a great way to get help with any problem, as we're all here to help - so never feel alone).

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    Hi Robodashy and welcome to The Workplace! This is an excellent first answer, as it is well written, answers the question, and is backed up by your personal experiences. Please keep making these great contributions! :D – Matt Giltaji Aug 5 '14 at 5:50
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In addition to the exellent answer by Robodashy, I'd like to add one thing. From your post, it seems you spend a lot of energy on hiding the panic attacks so that nobody will notice, to "look normal". I truly understand this - been there, done that...

However, I've learned that most people around me are actually nice and caring. That means that if they find out that you are having problems, they are more likely to be helpful than not. And if you no longer have to expend a lot of energy to hide your panic attacks, you may find that they don't last as long and don't get as severe.

If possible, try starting by talking to one person whom you feel you can trust. You don't say what country you're currently in; if you were in my country I'd suggest you start by talking to the local employee health and safety rep. There may be something similar where you are - ours have a legal obligation to not pass on what they're told and their job is represent the workers, not the company.

In most Western countries there are laws that protect you against e.g. dismissal or discrimination due to mental health issues. That means that if/when you get to the point that you feel able to talk to your boss, even if they should turn out to not be helpful, they're legally obliged to give you reasonable accommodations. Exactly what those accommodations might be is something you could/should work out with a mental health professional; it might be e.g. just being able to go to a quiet space where you can get yourself together.

From what you've written, I'm guessing you're doing a good job as a programmer - you want things to be as good as it's humanly possible to make them. If the management at your company has any sense at all, they'll be willing to help you so that you can continue doing a good job. And if not, maybe it's about time to look for a place that values its employees more.

  • Thank you for taking the time to answer. / I've asked for help dozens of times from professionals, friends and family but these requests are mostly unnoticed. / I live in the UK but as a contractor I'm not protected by the law. / I've taken action as a result of your advice and arranged a telephone interview for a permanent role this Thursday. / They won a "best company to work for" award in Thames Valley which bodes well. – Ashton War Aug 5 '14 at 21:44
  • Thank you so much for your comment! I hope it will turn out well for you. – Jenny D Aug 6 '14 at 3:53
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I understand that this question is almost a year old now, but the topic is timeless so I will post my advice here for yourself if you're still having problems and for anybody else who comes across this problem.

I've been in this position before and I did the worst thing possible: I didn't tell my manager and I quit 'out of the blue' when the anxiety became too much.

The plan of action should be the following:

  1. Tell your manager you're having problems with anxiety. If you don't want to be this open with your manager then go to H.R.
  2. Go to a GP and pursue professional help until you've got a handle on the anxiety (this can take just a few months, a few years, or longer). Don't be afraid to request different counsellors if you aren't making any progress with your current one.
  3. Update your manager with how you're getting on every few weeks, or more often if constructive.

Both your employer and yourself should treat anxiety as any other medical condition. It shouldn't be brushed under the carpet, it shouldn't be ignored, it needs to be addressed. It will only get worse if you don't seek help. Anxiety can easily take up most, if not all of one's mental energy. It's horrible because you believe all the things that could go wrong.

Once you tell your manager you can do a number of things:

  • Agree on changing your workload. Just like taking time off work for a back injury, changing your workload whilst suffering from clinical anxiety should be standard practice.
  • Agree time off for medical appointments
  • Take the weight off your damn shoulders!

Once you've taken the heat off and started talking regularly to a health professional, chances are the counsellor/doctor will ask you to stress yourself a bit at work again in a controlled manner so as to test and monitor your response. By stressing yourself in a controlled environment you're learning to manage the anxiety. It's like physiotherapy for a broken foot. This is how you overcome it. You'll apply stress, learn to manage it, then be able to apply more stress, manage that and so on. Keep working at it and within no time you'll be back up to full speed, working more efficiently than ever before.

Co-workers don't need to know. Just tell your manager you don't want others to know. If anyone asks, joke, laugh, brush it off with humour. Tell them to stop being such a gossiper.

Anxiety can be handled and it does not mean you are bad at your job. In fact it will make you an awful lot stronger when you get a handle on it. It will make you an excellent manager in the future because you'll know first hand these problems. Learning how to handle your anxiety can make you a lot more resilient than others who have never experienced it (yet).

If your manager doesn't respect the illness then they're a bad manager - by definition. Go to HR and if they don't respect it then leave the damn company, they don't deserve to hold on to you as an asset. In this day and age though, this is highly unlikely to be the case. Good luck, it's quite a journey, but you won't be alone. The more people you'll talk to about the problem, the more people will talk to you about their experience - a surprising number of people will talk to you about their history of anxiety. It's very common. I seem to remember a figure of about 20% of people have clinical anxiety of varying degrees at any one point. Hope this helps!

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"How can I handle the panic attacks in the workplace so as not to come across as difficult, risk losing my job or the respect of my colleagues or otherwise cause problems for myself and/or others?"

Basically, by convincing them that the panic attack just means you need a bit of time to think the situation through, and if they give you that time to let the idea settle in you can be as productive/creative/helpful as anyone else in the group.

Part of that is learning to manage the panic, if you can -- hold it off until the end of the briefing or whatever, then say "Ok, I need to think about how best to attack this; I'm going to go out for a walk while I do so" or something of that sort. Physical exercise and a bit of time to get the jitters out of your system can sometimes be all you need, and you can train yourself to settle down again a bit more quickly (relaxation exercises and the like). Focus on practical next steps, break it down into manageable pieces, remind yourself of the resources available...

And yes, medication may help if this is significantly impacting your life. Went thru an event this year which would have had me in deer-in-headlights mode in the past, and handled it pretty well.

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Being a perfectionist and being subject to panic attacks seem to go together. Stop being a perfectionist. If anything goes wrong,look at the consequences objectively - they are nowhere as bad as Chicken Little's prediction that the sky is falling. If Genghis Khan could not destroy the world as we know it, I doubt that you can - To be blunt, you don't have either the talent or the ability or the motivation or the resources or the bloody mindedness.

Rather, I take it that it's not the world that 's falling apart when you screw up but YOUR world. Again, you need to step back, look at the big picture and assess the actual damage, which is nil.

I am detecting a malevolent chain of behavior: perfectionist -> obsessive -> dark mood -> panic attacks.

If you stop being a perfectionist and you stop obsessing about failure, you will hopefully go a long way toward stopping your panic attacks. Your problem is not life with all its ups and downs but how you see life.

Best that you get help from mental health professionals. No shame in that, most of us at times hold on to our sanity by a thread :)

Here are some references about the link between perfectionism and panic attacks:

Perfectionism Disorder: "Studies have shown that there is a link between people who experience panic attacks and people who have perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionism is a feature of panic disorder."

Perfectionism and Panic Disorder: "Many people struggle with the negative aspects of perfectionism, and people with anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder, may be even more prone to issues of perfectionism. Having unrealistic expectations about the self can contribute to increased feelings of anxiety, dissatisfaction, and difficulty coping with symptoms."

Anxiety and Perfectionism

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    Please avoid using comments for extended discussion. Instead, please use chat. On Workplace SE, comments are intended to help improve a post. Please see What "comments" are not... for more details. – Matt Giltaji Aug 6 '14 at 19:45

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