This statement by the Mental Health Commission of Canada inspired this post:
“If you sprain your ankle, chances are you’ll know what to do. If you have a panic attack, chances are you won’t.”
Whether Mental Health is openly discussed within your sales team or not – chances are, you or people around you are suffering from panic attacks on a regular basis.
You just don’t know it.
They are scary and often times, traumatic experiences that sales people rarely share with others. Given the emotional roller-coaster and high stress environment that is sales – it can be common for sales anxiety to boil over and spiral into a full blown panic attack.
This post will provide those who are struggling and those who support them, with helpful strategies to navigate panic attacks in a mentally healthy way.
My Sales Anxiety and Panic Attack Story
Very early on in my career, I suffered from regular panic attacks that would happen to me in the middle of the night.
Simply put – they are terrifying. Especially when you’re all by yourself and lying in the dark.
Everyone experiences panic attacks differently.
For me – they would typically start with an intrusive thought that entered my mind as a “What if” statement, while reflecting on my day. A seemingly meaningless sequence of events that happened during the day – like getting rejected on a few calls – would come back to haunt me at night.
“What if I also get rejected on all my calls tomorrow.”
“What if I miss my metrics.”
“What if I can’t sleep – I’ll have no energy to perform well tomorrow.”
Then as the sales anxiety intensified into a panic attack – the “What if” preceding these statements would vanish and my mind would shift to feeding me more intense perceived truths instead.
“I’m definitely not going to hit my metrics.”
“I’m going to miss my target and get fired.”
“I’m not going to be able to pay my rent and I’ll end up on the street.”
“My family will disown me for being a failure.”
Running from Difficult Emotions in Sales
In the dead of night – without distractions – the embarrassment, anxiety and other difficult emotions tied to a few bad calls now have my mind’s full attention. At the time I lacked the mindfulness, EQ and resilience training I needed to tend to these emotions.
Instead I would party, binge drink and play hours of video games to escape how I was feeling.
But I couldn’t run forever. Eventually I would get tired and need rest.
That’s when these emotions that I’d been trying so hard to push away, would come back at their strongest. When I was at my weakest and exhausted, these emotions now had the power to bend and reshape my reality.
Losing Perspective and Existential Threats
In a matter of minutes I’d lose perspective. Emotions had twisted my mind into believing with 100% certainty that I was now days away from losing my job and the respect of my family.
I believed that I was facing a REAL threat and I was about to lose extremely meaningful parts of my life. In the case of a panic attack – you’re facing an existential threat that gives weight to the phrase…
Your perception is your reality.
When dealing with an existential threat your mind and body uses the same defense strategies they would use when facing a physical threat like a bear. Your Fight or Flight system kicks into high gear and flood your body with cortisol and adrenaline.
You then start to feel:
- Your heartbeat and breathing rapidly increase.
- You might become pale as blood flow to your muscles, brain, legs and arms increase.
- Your pupils dilate so you can block out distractions and focus on the details of the danger.
- You may even start to tremble as your muscles tighten and you get ready.
- Your body may start to sweat or experience chills.
All of these are extremely helpful adaptations your body will use to make you more effective at running away or fighting off a bear. But we’re fighting not fighting a bear.
In my case – I’m lying in the dark, by myself and feeling these overwhelming bodily sensations getting worse. The more I panicked – the more intense the sensations became. My chest continued to tighten and my breathing continued to quicken until the only conclusion I could draw was…
“I’m having a heart attack!”
Facing what I believed to be a life or death situation, I ran to the hospital in an effort to save my life. Only to find out that this is what it feels like to have a panic attack.
Shame and Embarrassment Surrounding Panic Attacks in Sales
If you haven’t experienced a panic attack before, I’m sure you can imagine how embarrassed a person might be in sharing their experience with you.
Being an outsider to the mind warping inner dialogue your friend, family member or colleague just experienced, you would know two things with almost 100% certainty:
- Your friend, family member and or colleague was NOT about to face the existential threat they just created in their head.
- Your friend, family member and colleague was NOT having a heart attack.
When someone is having a panic attack they are not thinking logically. They can’t really explain themselves or why they are feeling the way they are. There is so much adrenaline pumping through their body that any explanation they could give would sound crazy.
And they know this. They know their reasoning would sound crazy to others.
Out of fear of embarrassment and shame – most decide to hide these experiences from others and often suffer in silence.
As I did very early on in my sales career.
Panic attacks can be extremely traumatic and scary events most people will remember for the rest of their lives. If you suffer from panic attacks – I hope these next few tips will help you get through them.
1 – Acknowledge You’re Having a Panic Attack
The first thing you need to do is acknowledge that you are having a panic attack. This helps limit the duration and intensity of the panic attack.
When you have your first panic attack or you aren’t aware of what is happening, you often panic more. As a result your Fight or Flight response stays ON and continues to pump adrenaline through your body.
Your breath keeps getting faster, your heart beats quicker and you experience all of the symptoms mentioned above. As a result your body keeps trying to fight harder, because your mind doesn’t understand what is happening. All it knows is it’s under attack!
To stop this – label it.
Label the sensations your body is feeling as a panic attack.
Then say out loud:
“I’m having a panic attack – it’s OK – I’m not in danger.”
2 – Treat Your Panic Attack Like A Wave
Now that you have labeled your panic attack, step two is to treat it like a wave.
By the time you have labeled your panic attack, your body has already been flooded with adrenaline, which means you’re going to have to wait it out. Your body needs time process the adrenaline and get it out of your system.
This is why it is helpful to imagine the panic attack as a wave.
Waves are only dangerous when you’re caught in the middle of them. In the middle of a wave you feel like you’re drowning – similar to a panic attack. Now that you have labeled the panic attack, envision your body experiencing the wave of adrenaline entering your body.
Imagine your body floating on top of the wave. When you’re feeling all of those really scary and intense sensations – this means you’re at the crest of the wave. Since you labeled the panic attack, find comfort in knowing the wave has no energy to keep growing. Adrenaline is no longer entering your system.
You know what it is.
A non-threatening wave that will slowly subside as the adrenaline wears off.
Ride it out.
3 – Mindful Moment
The cycling “What If” statements and intrusive thoughts are also fueling your anxiety and panic attack. They do this by capturing your attention and making you focus on a threatening future scenario you believe to be real.
To break these cycling thoughts you need to ground yourself in the present. One way to do this is by following these steps and have a Mindful Moment:
- Name five things you see.
- Name five things you hear.
- Name five things you feel.
- Name five things you smell.
- Name five things you taste.
Your senses have been evolving over thousands of years. By actively engaging them, your mind has no conscious energy to simultaneously keep feeding you intrusive thoughts. It’s very hard for your brain to tell you:
“You’re going to lose your job and family soon…”
While it’s occupied labeling things it is seeing in the present moment.
Your brain can only focus attention on so many things at once. Repeating this exercise ensures your attention is on things in the present instead of the existential threat in your head.
Getting back to the present is where you’ll regain perspective.
4 – Grab Something Cold
The exercise above is extremely helpful, but sometimes – no matter what you do – you can’t stop your racing mind. It just keeps going.
The best things I’ve found that have helped me in these moments are taking a cold shower, running my wrists under cold water or grabbing an ice cube from the fridge. Dunking yourself in cold water (don’t go ice cold if you’re new to cold showers – keep it cool) or grabbing something really cold overrides your thinking and breaks your racing mind.
Remember – your attention and focus is limited. Your mind has no choice but to focus on the freezing cold ice cube in your hand or ice cold water hitting your body.
With your mind preoccupied on the cold – this is your moment to start engaging the other senses and build momentum back to the present. Start listing what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting.
5 – Go For a Light Walk
Adrenaline gives you energy. When you’re lying in bed it will take longer for the wave to pass and your body to process the adrenaline.
Your body thinks it’s about to fight a bear remember?
In the past I’ve literally grabbed an ice cube from the fridge and left the house for a walk. Not only does the fresh air help, but when you’re moving outside – you’re also being bombarded with new things you can see, touch, hear, feel and smell.
There is only so much your senses can perceive when you are sitting still. This gives space for intrusive thoughts to take over again.
Don’t let them – get moving!
6 – Box Breathing
As your breath starts to slowdown and return to normal, this is the perfect time to practice box breathing. Box breathing means you’re taking deep breaths into your stomach and following these steps:
- Inhale for 4 seconds.
- Hold for 4 seconds.
- Exhale for 4 seconds.
- Hold for 4 seconds.
Deep breathing like this into your stomach helps stimulate your vagus nerve which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This system is responsible for helping your body Rest & Digest – opposite to the sympathetic nervous system – Fight OR Flight.
Simply repeat the breathing for the remainder of the wave until you’re back to neutral.
7 – Journal
After experiencing a panic attack, the last we feel like doing is exploring our inner mind further – but this is exactly what we must do. Now that we’ve regained perspective and in the safety of the present, we need to get curious.
We have to stop our mind from attaching fear to this experience and instead explore it. We have to go in search of the root cause that started our panic attack and approach it from a growth mindset.
What can I learn from this experience and how can I grow from it?
Simply start journaling your thoughts down on a piece of paper. Here are some questions you can answer to help you get started:
- Why was I so anxious in the first place?
- What was I doing leading up to my panic attack that could have triggered it or made it worse?
- What event from earlier in my day could have triggered this?
- Why was this event so particularly stressful or troublesome?
- Was there a previous traumatic event or experience in my life that could have made the most recent one more scary and emotional?
- What is my body and mind trying to tell me about myself?
- What emotion or experience do I need to release or learn from?
Anxiety & Panic Attacks are Hidden Messengers
When you stop avoiding your inner world and approach it with curiosity, you learn a lot about yourself. You learn about emotions and past experiences that have changed you and shaped you – for better or worse.
When you intentionally explore your inner world – you’re in the driver seat.
You get to choose what past emotions or experiences get to influence you going forward. You’ll also be able to identify past negative experiences that are having a negative influence on your life and current relationships.
Revisiting these past experiences allows you to learn the lessons you need to learn from them – so you can let them go.
This can be a scary task to do on your own. If you need help, I’d recommend speaking to a therapist. Therapists are trained to help you revisit these difficult emotions and experiences in a supportive way.
It’s important to perceive anxiety and panic attacks as messengers that are trying to tell you something.
Usually when their messages become overwhelming and loud – it means there is an emotion buried deep inside that wants out. An inner bear that is upset, but you don’t see it yet. It’s hidden behind all of the distractions, technology and bad habits you are using to avoid it.
Anxiety’s messages have lessons they want to teach you – but more importantly they want to be heard.
The best thing you can do is stop running.
And put in the work to learn from them.
About The Author
Jeff Riseley is currently the Founder of the Sales Health Alliance and Mental Health Advocate. With over a decade of sales experience – Jeff understands the importance of Mental Health in achieving peak sales performance.
Jeff combines his sales (Sales Knowledge Institute) and Mental Health expertise to improve sales performance through a mix of sales mentorship and mental health best practices. His strategies have helped sales teams improve their sales process, while helping them become more motivated, resilient and better equipped to tackle stressful events within sales.
He is currently delivering these strategies through on-site workshops, coaching and speaking engagements. To explore working with Jeff contact him at [email protected]