Understanding anxiety through ‘This Is Us’

Above: Sterling K. Brown’s Randall at the onset of a panic attack on ‘This is Us.’ (Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

I consider NBC’s “This Is Us” one of the best new shows to come along in years, and based on its strong ratings and warm critical reception, many others agree. It manages to resonate with viewers as both escapist entertainment and realistic refuge. It allows us to disengage from current events for an hour and shift our focus to our families and ourselves, and the intimate hardships and beautiful moments that drive our everyday lives.

The show is replete with relatable scenarios, but I never expected it to intertwine so completely with my own life as the most recent episode did. Viewers probably noticed that Randall (Sterling K. Brown), the Pearson sibling who is arguably the most well-adjusted, has seemed increasingly not himself during the past couple of episodes, culminating with tremors in his hand at the end of the Feb. 7 installment. (Beware spoilers for the Feb. 14 episode ahead.)

The stress of his birth father’s cancer, the revelation that his adoptive mother hid his birth father’s identity from him for his entire life and mounting pressure at work lead Randall to a panic attack, something we learn he’s battled since childhood. In a flashback, we see a teenaged Randall fixated on a paper about “Hamlet.” In his mind, his academic future hinges on this paper being the absolute best, and he experiences a panic attack when he finally sits down to write it.

In the flashback, his brother Kevin ignores the panic attack, while present-day Kevin (Justin Hartley) bails on the opening performance of his own play to be with Randall when he recognizes Randall’s symptoms over the phone.

You can watch the full scene via the “This Is Us” Twitter account below:

To fully appreciate the show’s exceptional portrayal of anxiety I recommend watching from the beginning, because Randall exhibits more subtle signs of an anxiety disorder leading up to this week’s pivotal episode. But at least based on my own experience, the writers, Brown and Hartley knocked this storyline out of the park. They manage to convey the realities of anxiety with honesty and compassion – including how frightening a panic attack is for both the person experiencing it and the person witnessing it – without being melodramatic.

Tears streamed down my face as soon as the scene began to unfold, and by the time Kevin showed up at Randall’s office to support him through the panic attack, I was full-blown ugly crying. It was the best portrayal I’ve ever seen onscreen of what it’s like to live with anxiety, in part because the show dared to address anxiety at all. I can’t recall a similar depiction in film or television. And I cried not only for Randall but also for myself, thinking, “Someone out there gets it. Someone with a very public platform understands.”

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting about 18% of the population – but only about one-third of those people receive treatment.

I had my first panic attack when I was a senior in college, shut away in the bedroom of my idyllic on-campus apartment. I didn’t know what was happening at the time, but my symptoms were similar to Randall’s – the confusion, the tearfulness, the inability to move, the shaking, the hyperventilation, the overwhelming feelings of stress and fear.

Health.com features a great recap of the episode that underscores that while the triggers of a panic attack are not always genuine threats, the physical response to the perceived threat is very real. And in that moment, I felt like I was drowning in a torrential storm of emotions and fears.

I struggle more with generalized anxiety than panic disorder, but do still experience panic attacks on rare occasions. And while I empathize with the stressors that led to Randall’s most recent panic attack, my heart broke for teenaged Randall because I understand fixating on things that most wouldn’t think twice about. But telling an anxious person to stop worrying is like telling a depressed person to think positive. Mental illness is not that simple.

Thanks to a mix of cognitive behavioral strategies and relaxation techniques, I’ve learned to cope with my anxiety, but it still rears its ugly head from time to time, reminding me it will always be there poised to strike. But I work hard to ground myself in what is versus what if, and fortunately I have supportive loved ones like Kevin who help me along the way.

But it was a full three years after that first panic attack that I actually said out loud to someone, “I think I might have an anxiety disorder.” And still only a handful of people knew about it until now, because I was scared and ashamed to communicate it.

The stigma of mental illness in this country is very much alive. Even as I write this I’m hesitant to click “publish,” and “what ifs” bounce around in my brain. What if people judge me once they know this long-held secret? What if they think I’m a less capable professional, or worse, somehow less human?

Anxiety is a reality for so many people, but without speaking up and sharing our experiences, how can those who don’t battle it ever begin to understand it? It’s rarely discussed in the pop culture sphere, which makes the thoughtful depiction on a show as popular and far-reaching as “This Is Us” so important. Gradually peeling away the layers and revealing the disorder in a successful, beloved lead character makes it all the more impactful.

I have been teenage Randall suffering in silence, and I’ve been adult Randall enveloped in love and support. The latter is essential to navigating this sometimes-arduous landscape.

On the off chance the “This Is Us” team ever reads this, thank you for your honesty. Thank you for your empathy. Thank you for being willing to go there, and for giving at least one anxiety sufferer a tiny bit of courage. Speaking up may not always make me feel better. But it already makes me feel considerably less alone.

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