Last month, I shared a blog about epilepsy and what it means to be really aware when it comes to understanding this disability. This month, I would like to take some time to talk about mental health disabilities, another area of disability that although unseen, has great impact on those with the disability but is rarely understood by those who do not have a mental health disability.

For this first installment, I would like to talk about anxiety or panic attacks. Like seizures, people rarely know how to respond when someone they work with has an anxiety or panic attack and don’t really understand what is happening. This lack of understanding leads to assumptions about the person who has anxiety or panic attacks that affect how they are viewed as a professional, but in many cases these assumptions are incorrect.

People who have anxiety or panic attacks experience a range of symptoms including both physical and mental symptoms. Some people experience shortness of breath, chest pains, or a choking feeling, while others may feel nausea, dizziness, or a sudden sensation of being too hot or having chills. People may also experience a feeling of paresthesia which is described as numbness or tingling sensations or derealization, a feeling of being detached from the situation. But for many people who experience anxiety or panic attacks, it is the response of those around them that has the greatest impact.

No matter how well intentioned, your reaction can contribute to prolonging or heightening the feeling of anxiety or panic for the person experiencing the attack.  It is not uncommon for someone who is having an anxiety or panic attack to not want to be touched or to be reluctant or unable to engage in conversation during the attack. While you may think that offering someone a hug or touching their arm is soothing and supportive gesture, having someone invade your physical space may make it difficult for a person to successfully execute anxiety control techniques. Most people who have a history of anxiety or panic attacks have a routine they follow when these attacks occur. Frequently people who experience anxiety or panic attacks will use techniques to relax their muscles and manage their breathing. Taking these steps can help a person to take control of the physical symptoms of the attack. It is also important for the person to take steps to control their thoughts and feelings of panic or anxiety during these times. For someone to be able to engage in the techniques used to manage these thoughts, they may wish for a moment alone or quiet space.

Having someone stare at you or an untrained person try to coach you through management techniques can add to the feeling of anxiety. The best thing you can do is to listen to the wishes of the person who is experiencing the attack. Let them decide how you can offer assistance, and remember, sometimes the most helpful solution is to take a step back and do nothing. Forcing the person into conversation, especially around the item that is causing the feelings of panic or anxiety, can create additional stress. Sharing horror stories and providing a list of things you are anxious about may help to relieve your stress when someone is experiencing an anxiety or panic attack, but will not help them to be able to manage their situation.

For people with all mental health disabilities, including those who have experienced anxiety and panic attacks there is great stigma associated with these disabilities. One of the myths about people who experience anxiety and panic attacks is that they will be unable to handle stressful situations at work. For people who believe this, first, avoiding stressful situations is not an effective tool for stress management and second you are working with people right now who have experienced anxiety and panic attacks and you just don’t know it because they aren’t telling you. It is also important to understand that anxiety isn’t always directly related to stress. There are many different kinds of anxiety disorders, some have a specific focus but there are others that can be generalized to everything. 

Tools that many people who experience anxiety and panic attacks are taught to use, like creating a plan of action, breaking down tasks into smaller parts, and being proactive rather than leaving tasks to the last minute, are all effective competencies that employers look for when filling numerous job roles.

It is also not true that a person who experiences panic or anxiety attacks is unable to control their emotions and will make a volatile employee. People who experience these attacks are not overreacting to anything in their environment; rather these attacks can happen for no apparent reason. For some people they may experience panic attacks even while sleeping or when first waking up from sleep. While a person who has these attacks may learn methods to manage symptoms when an attack occurs, they do not have control over the fact that they experience them and the attack is likely not related to any immediate emotional response to environmental factors. Anxiety and panic attacks can happen seemingly out-of-the-blue. When having an anxiety or panic attack, the person may appear to have shortness of breath, nausea, sweating, twitches or tremors. For others there may be no outward visible reaction that others can see during an attack, but a strong internal feeling of fear and paralysis may occur.

I have also had people tell me that anxiety is not a real disability. This is not true. While some anxiety is natural, people who have an anxiety related disability, such as panic disorder, experience physical, psychological, and behavioral symptoms. Panic disorder is a recognized disability characterized by experiencing sudden feelings of fear. One of the symptoms of panic disorder includes a complex cycle of experiencing anxiety because fear of the possibility of having a panic attack. This ultimately leads to more frequent panic attacks for a person with panic disorder. Experiencing panic or anxiety attacks is not just a sign that someone is “high strung” and is not something they can just “get over.” These attacks are often a symptom of a mental health disability or other medical conditions.

Many people who experience panic and anxiety attacks on a regular basis do not receive treatment because they are afraid of how they will be seen and don’t wish to be associated with the stigma attached to mental health disabilities. My message to people who experience these attacks is to not be embarrassed and to get treatment.

For people who do not experience these attacks, I can’t stress enough how important it is that we, as a whole, embrace true awareness of disabilities like epilepsy or panic disorders. Stigma has no place in the workforce; we owe it to our colleagues, friends and family to be educated and seek information.

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