How an On-Air Panic Attack Improved My Life

ABC's Dan Harris shares his journey to becoming "10% Happier."

February 11, 2014, 4:45 PM

Feb. 12, 2014— -- Shortly after seven on a sunny spring morning in 2004, I freaked out in front of five million people.

I was filling in on "Good Morning America," anchoring the news updates at the top of each hour. I had done this job plenty of times before, so I had no reason to foresee what would happen shortly after the co-hosts, Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson, tossed it over to me for my brief newscast: I was overtaken by a massive, irresistible blast of fear. It felt like the world was ending. My heart was thumping. I was gasping for air. I had pretty much lost the ability to speak. And all of it was compounded by the knowledge that my freak-out was being broadcast live on national television. Halfway through the six stories I was supposed to read, I simply bailed, squeaking out a "Back to you."

My job as a reporter generally does not require me to reveal too much about my private life, beyond innocuous banter on Twitter and with my co-hosts on the weekend edition of "GMA" (Likes: animals, music, baked goods. Dislikes: math, reporting outside during snowstorms). But what I discovered as a result of the panic attack has genuinely improved my life, and could, I suspect, help many other people. So even though telling the story makes me uncomfortable, I've decided it's worth the risk.

One of the first things I learned when I consulted a shrink after the on-air meltdown was that the probable cause was my well-hidden and well-managed (or so I thought) drug use. In 2003, after spending several years covering the wars in Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine and Iraq, I became depressed. In an act of towering stupidity, I began to self-medicate, dabbling with cocaine and ecstasy. I'm not talking "Wolf of Wall Street"-level debauchery. My intake was sporadic, and mostly restricted to weekends. I had never been much of a partier before this period in my early thirties. In hindsight, it was an attempt, at least partly, to recreate some of the thrill of the war zone. A side-effect of all of this, as my doctor explained to me, was that the drugs had increased the level of adrenaline in my brain, dramatically boosting the odds of a panic attack. It didn't matter that I hadn't gotten high in the days or weeks leading up to my on-air Waterloo; those side-effects lingered.

The doctor decreed in no uncertain terms that I needed to stop doing drugs -- immediately. Faced with the potential demise of my career, it was a pretty obvious call. But as I sat there in his office, the sheer enormity of my mindlessness started to sink in -- from hurtling headlong into war zones without considering the psychological consequences, to using drugs for a synthetic squirt of replacement adrenaline. It was as if I had been sleepwalking through a cascade of moronic behavior. I knew I needed to make some changes to get my life in check -- but I didn't know how, or what they would be, exactly.

By pure happenstance, and despite my lifelong agnosticism, my boss and mentor, Peter Jennings, had assigned me to cover faith. Thus began a strange little odyssey. Leveraging my position as a reporter, I explored everything from mainstream religion to the bizarre fringes of self-help to the nexus of spirituality and neuroscience. The accidental yet enormously helpful end result of all this poking around: I became a reluctant convert to meditation.

Before you stop reading, let me point out that I am not a stereotypical meditator. In fact, I'd always had -- and still have, really -- an allergy to all things touchy-feely and New Age-y. As it turns out, though, meditation doesn't require robes, incense, crystals, Cat Stevens or "clearing the mind." It's exercise for your brain. And there's good science to back this up.

Meditation is a tool for taming the voice in your head. You know the voice I'm talking about. It's what has us constantly ruminating on the past or projecting into the future. It prods us to incessantly check our email, lurch over to the fridge when we're not hungry, and lose our temper when it's not in our best interest.

To be clear, meditation won't magically solve all of your problems. I still do dumb things -- just ask my wife -- but meditation is often effective kryptonite against the kind of epic mindlessness that produced my televised panic attack. When friends and colleagues ask (usually with barely hidden skepticism) why I meditate, I often say, "It makes me 10% happier."

This not-insubstantial return on investment has made me something of an unlikely evangelist for meditation. Self-help gurus are constantly telling us that we can get anything we want through the "power of positive thinking." This is an unrealistic and potentially damaging message, I think. By contrast, meditation is a doable, realistic, scientifically researched way to get significantly happier, calmer, and nicer. If meditation could be stripped of the syrupy, saccharine language with which it's too often presented, it might be appealing to millions of smart, skeptical people who may never otherwise consider it. So I've written a book, called "10% Happier," in which I attempt to do just that. It comes out in March.

Am I worried about what kind of reaction people will have to my getting personal in this way? Absolutely.

At the very least, it'll be a good test of my meditation practice.

For more information on Dan's book, click here:

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