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What 'This Is Us' got right about panic attacks — and what you should know

This week's episode of 'This Is Us' highlighted an important topic: panic attacks. And it got viewers talking.
/ Source: TODAY

This week's episode of "This Is Us" highlighted an important topic: panic attacks. And it got viewers talking about what the show did and didn't get right about anxiety.

About 6 million adults in the U.S. experience panic disorder in a given year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. On the show — don't worry, we won't spoil anything major — Randall, played by actor Sterling K. Brown, experiences a panic attack, also sometimes called an anxiety attack.

Fans gave the show props for the powerful scene:

Many viewers shared their own experiences with anxiety or mental illness, and sympathized with the character.

But what is a panic attack? And what should you do if you suspect you're having one?

RELATED: Woman's photos after panic attack aim to de-stigmatize mental illness

"It's the experience of a sudden onset of feeling like something is really wrong," Dr. Beth Salcedo, medical director of The Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders in Washington, D.C., told TODAY. "A lot of times people will feel a sense of dread. They might feel like they're going crazy; they might feel like they're going to die."

The attacks also come with physical symptoms, including sweating, increased heart rate and shortness of breath. "They might get shaky, like the (character) in 'This Is Us' did," Salcedo said.

The experience lasts about 10 minutes, and people often "feel sort of shaken afterward," she added.

RELATED: Anxiety and panic attacks strike women more often than men

If that sounds like you, see a doctor. They might suggest cognitive behavioral therapy or medication.

If you find yourself in the midst of a panic attack, try to "challenge those distorted thoughts that are fueling the panic," she said.

If you're having an attack:

  • Remind yourself it will end.
  • You're going to be OK.
  • Focus on deep breathing.

If someone around you is experiencing an attack, you can offer them that same guidance.

"Anxiety is so, so treatable," Salcedo said. "If people just present themselves for treatment. And the earlier the better."