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‘I Had a Panic Attack at Work and I’m Embarrassed’

A woman with long, curly brown hair looks down nervously as she holds a cell phone to her ear.
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Hi Kimberly,

I struggle with depression and anxiety, and I go to great lengths to hide them at work. I get compliments from my bosses on my work, get “exceeds expectations” on my annual evaluations, and am asked to have new employees shadow me. However, I have had multiple panic attacks while at work. I’ve been mostly able to hide them. My supervisor is aware of this (only because I have had them in front of her), and I trust her; she is supportive and kind. Recently, I had a terrible panic attack in front of my supervisor and several other supervisors. I feel like it made me look unprofessional, and I worry that I won’t be taken seriously. I am also just so embarrassed. How can I do damage control?

First and foremost, my heart goes out to you. Experiencing panic attacks at work can feel super-embarrassing. While it’s easy to divert your attention to what others may be thinking or saying about you, your energy is better spent determining what you need in order to manage your panic attacks. If you’re not already working with a mental-health professional to help identify your triggers and develop coping mechanisms, I encourage you to seek one out. According to the Cleveland Clinic, around 11 percent of people in the United States experience a panic attack, and up to 3 percent are diagnosed with a panic disorder. Know that you are not alone.

Now, since you’ve experienced an attack in front of your supervisor and other colleagues, think about whether you’d like to formally address what happened. Disclosing that you suffer from panic attacks and/or a panic or anxiety disorder is a very personal decision. It appears that you’ve already had a conversation with your direct supervisor, but know that while it may be helpful, it’s not necessary to “clear the air” with anyone else who was in the room.

If you do want to disclose your situation to your other colleagues, I recommend that you first see whether your panic attacks may be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act or your state equivalent, which would protect you from dismissal or demotion (you may also find that you’re eligible for accommodations to better support your mental health in the workplace). Retaliation is real, so make sure that you’re protected — even colleagues with the best intentions may not understand your situation or be able to separate the attack from your work performance.

Just as you’d prepare to address tough questions in a job interview, it’s important to plan out a few brief sentences to lean on in the conversation. If you’re comfortable, you can invite your colleague to ask questions. I recommend saying something like:

Hi John! If you have a moment, I’d like to speak with you to address the panic attack that you witnessed last week during the meeting. This was something that was out of my control and I wish that it didn’t occur during that time, but unfortunately it did. I want to reiterate my ability to do (insert 3 tasks or projects that you’re working on) and invite you to ask any questions that you may have.

Thanks again for your understanding and support.

If you prefer not to address the panic attack and continue business as usual, that is 100 percent okay as well. I’m so happy to hear that your performance is consistently rated at “exceeds expectations.” That means it’s documented that you are a high performer and your work can continue to speak for itself!

Additionally, it may be helpful to create a plan should another panic attack occur around your colleagues. Since you’ve already disclosed your panic attacks to your supervisor, you may feel comfortable speaking with her to determine the best course of action. It may be helpful to have a code word, for example — something simple that you’d be able to tell her so that she’s aware you urgently need to exit a meeting or escape to a quiet place to take care of yourself.

It sounds like you work in person in an office, so I recommend locating a few private spaces where you’d be able to go for a moment and allow the panic symptoms to pass. Many offices have moved to an open floor-plan arrangement; if you don’t have a private office to retreat to, look for small meeting rooms, single-stall bathrooms, stairwells, meditation rooms, or health-services areas. It can be hard to think clearly when the symptoms of a panic attack start to present themselves. Having a plan to implement coping strategies, or even a partner who can help you get to a private space, will help those symptoms pass.

Career and leadership-development expert Kimberly Brown helps readers make sure their next move is the best move. Listen to the Your Next Move podcast here and keep up with Kimberly on her website.

‘I Had a Panic Attack at Work and I’m Embarrassed’