Definition: The First
Panic attacks at work? Let employees “run” from a lion.
One of my favorite “tricks” to use when working with anxious employees comes straight out of the trauma-informed therapy strategies. I was introduced to this simple activity by internationally known trauma expert Courtney Armstrong, LPC, out of Chattanooga, TN. She has since become my mentor and friend.
If you or one of your employees experiences panic at work…either a full blown panic attack or heightened anxiety interfering with concentration…get the body moving. No need to focus on deep breathing…not yet, at least. We’ll get to that in a minute. No, the first thing to do is let the body work out its “fight or flight” response. Low aerobic activity one to three minutes is enough to activate the calming sensors in the nervous system. After that, you will be able to access deeper breaths a lot easier because the brain isn’t as lodged in the fight/flight/freeze response.
Remember…we are animals. So, when an animal’s (a.k.a. our) sympathetic nervous system has been activated, whether by a hungry lion chasing us OR a project deadline that hasn’t been met, the physiological response is usually to fight off the predator or run away (there is the freeze response…that’s a different article for another time).
At work, we can’t necessarily throw punches in the air or sprint down the halls. I get it. But, what we can do (or encourage our employees to do) is to take a brisk walk around the building or down the hall to the bathroom. In the restroom or break room, do a few jumping jacks. Let your Zumba moves take over. Jog in place. Whatever it takes to let the body experience physical movement. And do this for 1-3 minutes to the extent that the heart rate gets to a low aerobic level. Just enough physical activity to send a message to the brain that you are in fact “running from the lion” and you’re okay. Once the brain gets this message, it can start to calm down. When the brain feels more at ease, it sends calmer directives to the rest of the body…”lungs, you can slow down the breathing now. We’re not running from a lion anymore. Heart, you can slow down, as well. We’ve avoided becoming the lion’s lunch!”
This is, of course, a way simplified explanation of what happens, but you get the drift, right? Let the body do what it naturally wants to do when it feels threatened. It’s what animals do. Forcing ourselves to stay in our cubicle or on the production line while experiencing a panic attack is the exact opposite of what the brain finds comforting and reassuring. If the brain senses the body is being “forced” to stay put, such as what happens if we are held down physically, the fight or flight response usually gets worse. Simulating a good “fight” or “flight” not only helps you find a deeper, healthier breath, but also might get you to chuckle.
So, to recap:
• employee panics;
• employee is allowed to move so that she can get her heart rate up to a low aerobic level for one to three minutes;
• employee takes some deep breaths;
• employee returns to task and wonders how you got to be so smart about managing work stress.
Welcome to the inaugural blog post of PerDana. I truly hope you will stay close as I walk down a different street. I trust we will both learn quite a bit as we explore new territory.