Dan Harris’ Panic Attack (and Discovery of Meditation)


About ten years ago in front of 5.019 million
people according to the Nielsen ratings I
had a panic attack on live television. I was
doing a job that I’d done many times before
which was filling in as the news reader on
Good Morning America. The job basically entails
coming on at the top of each hour and reading
a series of headlines to the audience, bringing
them up to date on the news of the day. And
I was happy and excited to be there. I had
no way to foresee what was about to happen.
As soon as the anchors tossed it over to me
I was in the middle of the first story and
I was overtaken by this irresistible bolt
of fear. My heart started racing, my palms
were sweating, my mouth dried up and my lungs
seized up. And I was simply unable to breathe.
You can see it and hear it on the tape. I’m
gasping for air. It would have gotten a lot
worse, it would have become something like
the famous clip from Broadcast News where
Albert Brooks breaks out in flop sweat except
for I did something halfway through my newscast
I’d never done before which is I quit. I gave
up. I punted. I sent it back to the main hosts
of the show. What I said was, “Back to you
Robin and Charlie.” But it was actually Diane
Sawyer and Charlie who were anchoring and
in my panic I was unable to remember that.
And you can see that actually in an absurd
little crescendo roll video of Harry Potter
which was the next story I was supposed to
read that the control room thought I was going
to read but I was unable to do so.
And in the moments afterwards I realized that
I’d had a panic attack. And I was deeply,
deeply embarrassed. It wasn’t until later
that I learned what caused it. I went to see
a doctor who is an expert in panic and he
asked me a series of questions, one of which
was do you do drugs. And I sheepishly said,
yes, I do. And he leaned back in his chair
and said, “Mystery solved.” The backstory
is I got myself into trouble basically because
of a desire to do great at my job which is
something I think a lot of people can relate
to. You might call it ambition or just a drive
for excellence and being in love with my job.
I got to ABC News when I was 28 years old.
And if you look at the pictures I look like
I’m barely post pubescent. And I was working
with these giants like Diane Sawyer and Peter
Jennings and Charlie Gibson and Ted Koppel
and I was keenly aware of how green I was,
especially when compared to these famous people
I had been watching on television since I
was a kid.
And my way of coping with that was to become
a workaholic. And I threw myself into the
job and after 9/11 I volunteered and spent
many years overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan
and the Middle East. And when I came home
from that I developed a depression and I self-medicated
with recreational drugs which was a toweringly
stupid move on my part. And even though I
wasn’t doing it when I was working and definitely
not when I was on the air, I learned from
my doctor in his office after my panic attack
that the drugs I was taking, cocaine and ecstasy
raised the level of adrenalin in your brain
and basically guaranteed that I had the panic
attack. So that moment in the doctor’s office
when he explained to me what a moron I’d been,
I knew I had to make some changes in my life.
And that set me off on a strange little unplanned
journey that I talk about in my book, 10%
Happier.
Coincidentally at around the same time my
boss at the time, Peter Jennings, had assigned
me to cover religion for ABC News, a job I
didn’t want because I had been raised in a
very secular environment. My parents were
both scientists. And I tried to tell him I
didn’t want to do it and he told me, “Shut
up kid, you’re gonna do it.” So I ended up
spending many years meeting people of faith
and it really changed my view of the world
and it showed me the value of having a view
of the world that is larger than your own
narrow self-interest.
I read a book by a self-help guru by the name
of Eckhart Tolle. He has sold millions of
books. I had never heard of him. A producer
recommended I read the book because she thought
maybe it would be a good story. So I read
the book and at first I thought it was irredeemable
garbage, nonsense. There’s a lot of grandiose
language in there and pseudoscience and over
promising about how this book is gonna change
your life. But then I stumbled upon this diagnosis
of the human condition that I’d never heard
before. Eckhart Tolle says we all have a voice
in our head. He’s not talking about hearing
voices in the schizophrenic sense. He’s talking
about our inner narrator, the thing that wakes
us up in the morning and yammers at us all
day long. It’s an unpleasant stew of negative,
repetitive, ceaselessly self-referential thoughts
constantly judging, wanting, not wanting,
comparing ourselves to other people, casting
forward into an imagined future, remembering
an idealized past as opposed to being where
you are right now.
And I thought yeah, that describes me. In
fact, that voice pretty much is responsible
for all the things that I’m most ashamed of
in my life including that panic attack in
front of millions of people. And so I was
completely captivated by this description
of the human condition and I went and met
Eckhart Tolle and I found him to be almost
exactly the same in person as he is on the
page which is he’s half incredibly interesting
and incisive and half deeply, deeply confusing.
So unsatisfied by that encounter I then went
off and met a bunch of other self-help gurus
who also left me confused. Many of them left
me mildly infuriated because they were full
of a word that starts with S and ends with
T. And my wife at some point after hearing
me yammer on about Eckhart Tolle and the like
for many, many weeks gave me a gift. She gave
me a book by a guy named Dr. Mark Epstein
who’s a psychiatrist in New York City who
writes about the overlap between psychiatry
and Buddhism.
And I realized when I read this book that
all of the smartest stuff in Eckhart Tolle’s
book was actually taken pretty much from the
Buddha. And unlike Eckhart Tolle the Buddhists
have some actionable advice for dealing with
the voice in your head. The problem was I
didn’t want to do it. Their advice is to meditate
which I always thought was uniquely ridiculous
and only for people who live in yurts and
are really into aromatherapy and collect crystals,
et cetera, et cetera, and wear little cymbals
on their hands. But, in fact, as I learned
there’s an enormous amount of science that
says that meditation is a simple brain exercise
that can have an extraordinary impact on your
brain and your body. It can lower your blood
pressure, boost your immune system and literally
rewire key parts of your brain that have to
do with self-awareness, compassion and stress.
So when I heard that I decided to give it
a shot.
So now I find myself in this funny position.
I always thought that meditation was uniquely
ridiculous. Now I’m a daily meditator and,
even worse, I’m a public evangelist for meditation.
What I like to say though is it’s not gonna
solve all of your problems. All those self-help
gurus who tell you that you can magically
cure everything in your life through the power
of positive thinking — that’s baloney. It’s
not gonna happen. It’s demonstrably untrue
and possibly even a damaging message to send.
However, meditation is a scientifically tested
simple thing you can do every day that will
make you significantly happier. I called the
book 10% Happier for a couple of reasons.
One, I wanted to counter-program against the
over-promising of the self-help gurus. But
also it’s — I think we’re ready for a more
mature, realistic dialogue about happiness.
And nothing’s gonna solve all of your problems
but meditation can change the relationship
between you and that voice in your head which
is responsible for most of the things you’re
probably most embarrassed about in your life.

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