How an On-Air Panic Attack Improved My Life

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

ByABC News
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.