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My One Reservation About the Panic Attack Scene in 'This Is Us'

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There was a scene on a recent episode of “This Is Us” that has been getting a lot of praise for its portrayal of the experience of having a panic attack. A character is in his office and his hands are shaking, he cannot focus and he calls his brother to tell him he won’t be able to make it to see him perform in a play that night. His brother, hurt at first, realizes something is wrong and leaves the play (and his co-star) without explanation, rushing to comfort him. A lot of people who experience panic attacks are expressing they feel comforted by this scene and that they feel advocated for by an NBC drama.

I hate to be the guy who takes issue with a well-meaning (and in many ways progressive) television scene, especially one that sheds light on a character struggling with mental illness. But in many ways I am that character. I have panic attacks. I had one today. I could not begin to tell you how many I have been subjected to in my 25 years of life. I am someone who struggles and my reservation with the scene in question has nothing to do with the on-screen portrayal of my struggle. I think that was spot on. My concern is with the selfless and beautiful, yet ultimately unrealistic and unfeasible response of the character’s brother.

It’s not just this one TV show that showcases mental illness in a beneficial way yet goes overboard with the somewhat saccharine response of the characters on the sidelines. I don’t really follow “This Is Us,” but there are movies and television shows I am fully up-to-date on and for every refreshing portrayal of mental illness, I have grown accustomed to an unrealistic and rather unhelpful narrative resolution offered to the characters whose pain I identify with.

American legal drama “Suits” character Harvey Specter had a season-long arc exploring his journey and recovery through a battle with vicious anxiety attacks. A friend happens upon him in the middle of one such meltdown, immediately panics and picks up the phone – because surely what he was witnessing was a heart attack? Similarly, in the last “Iron Man” film, Tony Stark is triggered and thrown into trauma, immediately concluding his heart is failing. I see these scenes and I feel a bit vindicated. To see the casual, arbitrary struggle I experienced for so many years shown on screen in an empathetic light is no small thing. I’ve endured these routine anxiety assaults in silence and shame and often felt the world looked on, confused and decidedly distant.

Representation matters. But the fact they are shown as such earth-stopping events met with matching responses from those witnessing them makes the fact that so many of us experience panic attacks on a regular basis all the more discouraging. Because life doesn’t stop to give us time for our panic attacks. Yes, they are that intense and for many of us, they are by no measure infrequent.

I have some good people around me and even more within phone’s reach. I don’t feel I am lacking in allies as I fight against the tireless and cruelly creative beast of anxiety. But the responses of allies we see in the realm of fiction seem increasingly idealized and impractical.

I am privileged enough to have a number of people in my corner who do a great number of things to encourage and empower me in the fight for health and wholeness. But I do not have the privilege of putting my life on hold when anxiety pounces on me. I’ve got a life to live, a job to do, bills to pay, people to engage with in their joy and their pain. By some estimates, anxiety is the most common mental illness in America and many of us don’t have the opportunity to “check out” of our other responsibilities. And I don’t know if it’s fair to expect those who love us to blow off their own commitments every single time our fight-or-flight response is misused against us, simply because it can and does happen so often.

I believe we have a responsibility to care for those around us. I believe people are perhaps the greatest gift we all receive in this life and we have a duty and honor to fight for those people — not least of all in the realm of their mental health. But while anxiety attacks are traumatic, devastating and honestly, disgusting things to endure, they are far too frequent to supersede every other aspect of our lives every single time they happen.

Even when I was having them daily — even hourly — panic attacks were only part of the picture. Though it tried to tell me otherwise, my anxiety disorder has never been the only thing in my life – or the life of anyone else I know who is hurting. We have jobs and passions, adventures to go on and goals to achieve. Some of us have families and more of us have friends. We have lives to live and panic attacks try to punch holes in those lives, but we fight like hell and we have to keep going.

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Photo via “This Is Us” Facebook page.

Originally published: February 22, 2017
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