**This article includes honest discussion of panic attacks. All stories have been shared with consent.**
Watching Ted Lasso have a panic attack gave me a panic attack. But instead of being normal, I created an experiment I’m calling “anxiety immersion.” The premise was that I would rewatch the episode repeatedly to see if exposure would improve my mental health. To be clear, I never expected fictional Ted to be my therapist and I didn’t think healing would come just from watching. My hope was to use pop culture as a catalyst for a spiritual discipline to reflect on my mental health.
Ted’s Ex-Wife Strife and My So-Called Life
In the episode “Make Rebecca Great Again,” Rebecca’s best friend Sassy shows up to help her through her anniversary weekend. Ted is unable to motivate AFC Richmond prior to their away game against Everton in Liverpool and unable to motivate himself to sign divorce papers. To everyone’s delight the team beats Everton, but during their celebratory festivities Ted has a panic attack.
Over a decade ago I struggled with anxiety and depression because I was trying to prove myself in a stressful leadership job. But under the surface, having the American dream wasn’t fulfilling. I had layers of anxiety over why I couldn’t control my life and wasn’t happy. Over time I was healed by praying, acknowledging my choices were the root of the problem, surrendering my life to God, and rearranging the priorities in my life. For years I helped advise others on how to let God heal their anxiety, but (not to undermine those humbling success stories) I had a one-dimensional view: anxiety is self-inflicted fear.
Then around a year and a half ago, during the pandemic, I started having a different type of anxiety, as mentioned here. One night I got up from the couch to use the restroom and while standing over the toilet, I passed out. I came to with my wife yanking my arms trying to dislodge me from between the toilet and the wall. As my torso flopped to the floor, I could hear my kids calling 911 so I mumbled, “No ambulance, no ambulance.” I persuaded my wife to drive me to the good hospital out of town where the doctors ran a battery of tests. The unimpressive diagnosis was a vasovagal syncope attack.
The next day I went to work, avoiding questions on my black eye and gashes on my bald pate. But I couldn’t avoid the fearsome urinal. As I walked up to it, completely subconsciously, my chest tightened, and I felt light-headed. But no passing out. I ended up with tingling hands, unprovoked sweating, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath for months to come. But the chest tightness continues to this day whenever I feel guilty or nervous or excited, or even randomly when I’m completely content.
My wife and I didn’t start watching Ted Lasso as an escape, although we had been watching more drama-heavy shows that had induced a few panic attacks, so we agreed watching a comedy would be good for us. I didn’t expect the show to be such a balance of humor and heartfelt emotion. So when we started “Make Rebecca Great Again,” I expected to tear up and simultaneously laugh out loud, but I didn’t anticipate a panic attack, which was foundational to this experiment.
Unable to Let It Go
There’s no question why this episode has nine out of ten stars on IMDb: it is expertly crafted. As the celebratory karaoke scene begins, everyone is having a good time, and just when you think the team can’t enjoy anything more than Coach Beard singing Lady Gaga, Sassy sets up “Let It Go” for Rebecca. This was Sassy’s daughter and Rebecca’s special song, but because Rebecca was recently absent from their lives, she feels guilty. The song is cathartic for Rebecca’s healing, but is also an olive branch of forgiveness from Sassy. And it allows Rebecca to be professionally vulnerable in a fun environment (hence the episode’s title). As Rebecca astonishes the team and the audience with her singing, Ted begins to have his panic attack.
The way the scene was shot—from Ted’s perspective of hands balling up, ringing and “tunnel-hearing,” and flashes of cognizance getting out of the bar—was a trigger for me. I didn’t want to worry my wife, so I suffered in silence. But as the episode closed, I told her I was coming down from a Ted-induced panic attack. We took a break for a week or two for fear of re-triggering, but we finally continued the season. Then it came to me: what about facing the fear head-on and repeatedly re-watching the episode?
Second and Third Viewing Is(n’t) the Charm
On my second watch-through I was a little agitated, especially during Ted’s panic attack, but no major anxiety. However, I was shocked at how short the panic attack scene actually is. I remembered it being ten minutes long, but it’s only two minutes, thirty-one seconds. Such are panic attacks. They warp reality and steal time from you.
I also couldn’t believe the writers interrupted Rebecca’s shining moment with the panic attack. Not only was Rebecca being humanized to us and her staff, but actress Hannah Waddingham really got to sing with her amazing voice! It’s such good storytelling: give a taste of two incidents and interrupt each with the other. Such is life.
I watched for the third time a few days later, but not much happened to my mental health other than being a little nervous. That’s when I realized part of the experiment needed to be how I felt between viewings as well as during. So I decided to take longer breaks between viewings and, sure enough, about two weeks later, I had an episode (pun intended).
In January of this year my wife had an MRI of her head. Because she experiences claustrophobia, they let me go in with her. She succumbed to an hour-long panic attack in which her lower body was involuntarily jerking, and they’d have to restart the scan. I was worried, but we prayed through the whole ordeal and found some peace.
She was restless on the trip home, and once in bed she woke up shaking, but oddly my body started shaking too. Each time she had a new symptom my body would mirror it. I’ll spare the uncouth details, but we both ended up on the bathroom floor having lost a lot of bodily fluids. Even now, five months later, when she gets anxious my body matches her symptoms.
After that initial night I recognized a parallel between the effect Ted’s wife, Michelle, had on him and the one my wife had on me. When someone we love is hurting, it can hurt us. In the same way Michelle wasn’t intentionally harming Ted, my wife wasn’t in control of my body’s reactions. Man, during these attacks, I’m not in control of my body’s reactions. And that was when I realized there is a different type of anxiety. In some cases, anxiety is no one’s fault.
And that brings the timeline up to two weeks after my third viewing. I was telling my mother-in-law about the night of my wife’s MRI, and I started having a panic attack about my panic attack! I excused myself, laid down, and was surprised to feel much better just a few minutes later.
Fourth and Fifth Viewing: Empowerment and Humility
The night I watched the episode for the fourth time, my wife was nervously sitting on the ground because her stomach hurt. And then before bed she had serious concerns about a few of our pets’ health. Normally either of these situations would have driven me into a panic attack, but I stayed as golden as Pony Boy. I was worried that watching Ted might have put me on the verge and one of those might throw me over, but it didn’t.
The story of Nate stood out on this viewing. In the midst of Ted’s distress on signing the divorce papers (but prior to his panic attack), he simultaneously apologizes and empowers Nate. As an assistant coach, Nate knows what the players need but is too shy to tell them. He tried to slip the suggestions under Ted’s door, at one of the lowest points in Ted’s sanguine life. Ted criticized Nate not because he did something wrong but because Ted couldn’t lash out at anyone directly causing his pain. Nate was collateral damage.
And yet, Ted was humble and quickly asked for forgiveness. This didn’t excuse his behavior, but he put action behind it and empowered Nate to give the pre-game speech. Gently pushing Nate wasn’t a cheap token gesture. Ted hadn’t been able to motivate the team prior to leaving for Liverpool. Ted had to recognize Nate could do something that he could not. And this incident was Nate’s turning point for season 1. He began valuing himself and others enough to be honest with them.
This resonated with me. Focusing on helping others was a major factor in overcoming my first self-inflicted battle with anxiety. Watching Ted’s self-sacrifice on the screen resonated with my subconscious. I started reaching out to others (we might call this discipling) and participating in events that didn’t directly benefit me (building community). And what kind of husband would I be if I wasn’t recognizing my wife’s anxiety and trying to help her? It’s amazing how getting my focus off myself helps others and simultaneously benefits me.
A good test of re-watching the episode came several weeks after my fourth viewing. When I first watched the trailer for Don’t Look Up in December 2021, Leonardo DiCaprio’s panic attacks gave me panic attacks. I’d forgotten about the panic attack scene until I was watching the movie at the beginning of March 2022, and I didn’t have any anxiety.
After the fifth viewing of the episode, one of our pets was acting weird, which drove my wife to be panicky, causing me to be panicky. But I worked on my breathing and prayed, and the attack was short lived. Around a week later, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like a million needles were pulsating sporadically under my skin. Normally this unknown sensation would have thrown me into a full-blown panic attack. Again, I focused on my breathing, asked for God to calm me (even if it wasn’t his will to remove the pain) and slowly, I fell back asleep.
Sixth Viewing: Walking a Mile in Ted’s Vintage Nikes
By the sixth viewing I noticed that Ted’s excitement at finally getting a hotel room numbered 5150 (California code for psychiatric hold) was a foreshadowing of his mental breakdown. Ted’s relentless optimism, complete with pop culture references like this one, is an endearing trait of the man. But he’s just a man. And when reference became reality, it momentarily disabled him. Delayed anxiety was something I had experienced, but it didn’t register with me until my sixth viewing of this episode.
Ted was under pressure and was snapping at Nate, but he enjoyed the team’s win. Just twenty-four hours later, he had a panic attack. The realization of delayed onset helped me prepare my wife and I for a recent flight. Over the years my wife has grown more and more anxious on planes, but she still bravely boards them. I was on edge in the airport and during the flight, concerned for her. But more importantly, we had discussed being ready for anxiety symptoms which wouldn’t present for one or two days after our flight.
This helped us be mindful in our prayers, meditation, solitude, Bible reading, and conversations, to request and acknowledge God’s peace. There were some slightly anxious moments, but ultimately the trip was great, and I believe it was because of our ability to empathize with each other, prepare, and seek God.
I Need Some More Therapy! … And That’s Okay
Did my “anxiety immersion” experiment work? I’ve certainly gotten healthier, but there are always unknown contributing factors. It wasn’t until after my sixth viewing, when a friend asked if this was a placebo effect, that I even considered if after the initial viewing’s shock, everything else was false traction. Possibly. That could account for my increased comfortability at the panic attack scene.
How the episode concluded helped me decide the experiment’s success. Keeley and Roy finally kiss, but he abruptly walks away, leaving Keeley confused. Rebecca waits for the waiter, and the final shot is Ted looking confused as Sassy walks into his hotel room. All three storylines give progression and are suggestive (in both uses of the word), but by no means satisfying resolutions. And they shouldn’t be—this is an episode midway through the first season, not the series finale.
Audiences love satisfying endings, but the vast majority of life doesn’t perform that way. We’re all midway through our seasons of life. I have made progression with my newest bout of anxiety but, sorry to say, dear reader, I can’t wrap this up for you with a fully resolved and completely satisfying conclusion. Except I’m not really sorry. As Shakira said, “Life is a soccer field,” so I realize there is scoring and missing, ups and downs, and not everything goes according to the plays you envisioned.
The healing didn’t come solely from watching the show, but from the combination of that approach with God’s guidance and reading the Bible. But I do think facing my fears, adding breaks between “therapy sessions” (letting time heal), realizing there are different types of anxiety, remembering empathy and compassion reprioritize my attention, and preparing for delayed onset of symptoms, clearly did help. Not definitive science, but growth nonetheless. So I’m not saying Ted Lasso fixed my anxiety, but the immersion technique seemed to work, and I got a lot of laughs with Ted and company along the way.