How a Panic Attack Turned a News Anchor Into a Mindfulness Expert

“I talk about mindfulness as like being an inner meteorologist, where you can see the storm before it makes landfall.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • How to stop a panic attack in its tracks
  • What makes pleasure different from happiness, and why it matters
  • Why responding, not reacting, is so key to success

Dan Harris is a correspondent for ABC News and the co-anchor for the weekend edition of Good Morning America. Following an on-air panic attack, Dan was inspired to begin mindfulness training and write his #1 New York Times bestseller, 10% Happier. Michael Gervais recently hosted him on Finding Mastery to ask about how meditation changed his life, and how a little mindfulness can do the same for the rest of us.

Michael: Can we go to the first few moments before your panic attack?

Dan: Sure.

Michael: I’ll set the stage. You’re on air and you’re breathing heavy. It feels like you’re gonna die, your heart is pounding, you’re probably sweating, and there’s a red light on and a camera is looking at you. You’re aware that there’s five million people watching what you have to say.

Dan: That’s exactly right.

Michael: Now go to the moment when you realized that the panic was turning on.

Dan: It was so fast. Panic triggers fight-or-flight. Your brain is just drenched with adrenaline, and all of these physical systems kick in. You’re breathing fast, your heart is racing, palms are sweating, mouth dries up, because your body is preparing for an emergency. Then what happens is the cycle of thinking, “Oh my God, things are spiraling out of control, get your shit together.” That gets worse, then that triggers the physiological stuff to get worse. You get into this cycle between your body rebelling against you, your mind rebelling against you, and one feeding the other.

For me, I just had to bail out. I was anchoring the news updates on Good Morning America. I was a few seconds into reading the stories that I was supposed to read off the teleprompter, and it got so bad I just tossed it back to the other anchors.

Michael: What came first? Was it the thought? The heart thumping? The cottonmouth?

Dan: I don’t know. I just have this memory of this thing rolling up over the back of my head and down the front of my face. This wave, that’s what it felt like. A wave of heaviness and fear rolling over me. I don’t know if there was thinking before it, or if that just happened and then the thinking started.

Michael: So it was new, it caught you by surprise?

Dan: I had felt minor versions of it before, but this one was irresistible. I remember being on the roof of a hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan right at the beginning of the Afghan War. The bombing campaign had just started, and Peter Jennings was anchoring it live. They came to me and I didn’t do a good job because I was panicky.

Michael: That nervousness is contextually appropriate.

“I talk about mindfulness as like being an inner meteorologist, where you can see the storm before it makes landfall.”

Dan: Right, but I guess what I’m saying is that I had some familiarity with the feeling. When the anxiety and panic rolled over me, it wasn’t totally new.

I didn’t have the wherewithal to slow the train down. I had weakened my system because I was doing drugs, specifically cocaine, which was the consequence of being depressed, which was the consequence of spending a lot of time in war zones and getting addicted to the adrenaline, and then coming home and doing stupid shit to make up for that. And I had a pre-existing penchant for stagefright, nerves, anxiety on the air. Then all that combined.

Michael: No one ever dies from a panic attack, but that’s exactly what it feels like.

Dan: Yeah, it’s terrible. Totally terrible. Also, once you have a panic attack, your body gets really good at panic attacks.

I actually had a moment yesterday when I was flying back from Cleveland. One of my jobs here at ABC News is I anchor Nightline. We finished Nightline at like 1:30 am, my flight was at 6:30 in the morning, so I just didn’t go to bed. I got on this little plane, and when they closed the door, I had a moment of like, “Oh my God, I’m feeling claustrophobic.” And because I hadn’t slept, it was more powerful than it usually is.

I was like, “Oh, no. Is this going to blossom into something?” It didn’t, but panic is always with me.

Michael: What did you do with yourself when it was coming? How did you work your way through that?

Dan: This is a place where meditation helped. I was aware, really aware. I talk about mindfulness as like being an inner meteorologist, where you can see the storm before it makes landfall. I saw it coming, and on a cognitive level I was like, “Okay you didn’t sleep last night, so you’re more prone to this, but you’re totally fine. If you need to, just turn on a video on your phone and get lost in the story.”

Michael: There you go, that’s the awareness.

Dan: Then I meditated for a while. Meditation in a panic situation can be good or bad, because mindfulness is leaning into whatever is most predominant. If you lean into the panic, it can actually exacerbate the panic.

I got an interesting piece of advice on this front recently. There’s a great Tibetan master named Mingyur Rinpoche, and he suffered from panic attacks as a kid. He believes he’s cured himself of panic attacks through meditation, and what he used to do is call up anger. He would call up anger, and that would actually get him out of panic.

“Life is inherently unsatisfying when you’re focused on impermanent hits of pleasure.”

Michael: If you think about going into a competitive or performance-based scenario, you can go in poised, fluid, and smooth, or you can go in scared, or you can go in angry. Once you’re really aware, you can choose.

If you’re not smooth, if you haven’t done the mental work to know how to find the best version of yourself when there’s millions of people paying attention, your mind runs wild. You’re focusing more on what could go wrong. That’s the scared index.

[But] you can flip it and call up a completely different emotion, which is anger. At least you’re not scared, right? You might be tight. You might become exhausted a little bit earlier, but at least you’re not going to freeze or flee.

What I’ve done in my life is I’ve indexed on science. You did something totally different, you told a compelling story.

Dan: Science is really important for me, too. It’s what allowed me to start meditating, because I always thought meditation was ridiculous. [But] I started to see the science that shows it can lower your blood pressure, and boost your immune system, and rewire key parts of your brain. It seemed pretty obvious to me that there was something there.

Everybody wants to know my story of having a panic attack on national television. People love to talk about themselves, but I’m tired of talking about myself. Over time, it loses its juice. Same thing with ice cream, with sex, with music. Anything that is a fleeting pleasure, if you do enough of it, it will lose its pleasure.

It’s kind of a Buddhist thing. The Buddha’s most famous pronouncement was, “Life is suffering,” which is actually a mistranslation. We think of suffering as very [depressing], but what he actually meant is that life is inherently unsatisfying when you’re focused on impermanent hits of pleasure.

[But] there are more wholesome sources of pleasure, like generosity. That will never get old. Kindness will never get old. Sharing information that’s useful to other people just doesn’t get old. For me, there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Michael: You articulated the difference between pleasure and happiness really well, the quick hit on pleasure and then the enduring, lasting pursuit. It’s the pursuit that matters more than the endgame of happiness.

Balanced stones on a pebble beach during sunset.

My understanding of Buddhism is that happiness and joy and peace are all part of the process for [developing] the wisdom necessary for enlightenment. That being said, I’ve found that if the pursuit is about happiness and joy, oftentimes what gets missed is the importance of gratitude.

The research that I’ve found is that gratitude precedes joy and happiness. Where does your mind wander to when it comes to gratitude?

Dan: Gratitude is a powerful antidote to our natural tendencies to suffer, in the Buddhist sense, which is to be constantly on the hunt for the next hit of pleasure. Hedonic adaptation [happens] when you have all this great stuff in your life, but you take it for granted very quickly. You bake it into your baseline expectations. You get a promotion, you’re so excited, you’re walking on air for a certain amount of time, then it becomes your baseline expectation. You’re no longer excited about it anymore.

As I’m going to bed, I make a list of the things that I’m grateful for, many of which are not new and fresh and exciting and shiny. I’ve a one-and-a-half-year-old son. We had to work really hard through an infertility struggle to get him. He’s a little F5 tornado, and it can be a pain in the butt, but I can’t believe we have him, [and I] ponder that for a minute before I go to bed. I often find myself wandering towards the things about my job that I don’t like, but I love my job, and I remind myself of that.

My wife, our cats, the fact that I’m physically fit and financially stable. If I just tick through these before I go to bed, it runs counter to the way we’re wired. We’re wired for threat detection, especially since a lot of us are ambitious. We’re looking for problems to solve, but in that hunt, we’re overlooking all these amazing things. Just doing this exercise of reminding yourself of the stuff for which you are genuinely grateful can be really useful.

Sometimes I do it at the beginning of meditation, because I’ve found that you want to create the mental weather that is conducive to the mind settling.

Michael: I didn’t know that you did that. That’s something I do in the mornings, one thought of gratitude, one intention, like “How do I want to show up today?” Then I put my feet on the ground and just feel my feet. “Be here now.”

Do you feel each gratitude thought? Or is that a mental picture, an image?

Dan: I have been doing this compassion meditation training, which does involve visualizing, picturing people. From people you’re close with, to people you don’t really know, to people who are difficult, to everyone. You picture these people, and you send them good vibes. May they be happy, may they be safe, that type of thing.

Michael: When you’re doing the compassion training, are you feeling or are you seeing?

“We’re looking for problems to solve, but in that hunt, we’re overlooking all these amazing things.”

Dan: You get into trouble if you expect a certain feeling, because it’s very hard to conjure a certain feeling, and the expectation of getting there can be an impediment.

A great way to practice this successfully is to say, “Doesn’t matter what I feel. The trying, the intention is enough.” The idea is to surrender to the process and know that over time, you are changing your brain and your mind.

Michael: That’s where mindfulness is another accelerant to becoming the best version of yourself. It increases awareness of all that critical noise inside.

Dan: [Right,] if you’ve just made a mistake in a high-intensity athletic performance, you can use that moment to hop on the train of self-laceration: “I screwed that up. I’m going to screw up again. My mother was right, I’m useless. I’m never going to amount to anything.” You get on this train of association that ends in oblivion.

Or you can notice you’re doing it and let go of it, and focus more on getting your shit together so you can get back in the game. That can be the difference between a bad performance and a great performance.

Michael: Do you have a definition for what mastery is?

Dan: For me, a major component of mastery is the ability to respond instead of react. Most meditation clichés are annoying, but this is a good one. Once you have the internal telescope to see the contents of your consciousness, then you can respond to the stuff that’s happening instead of reacting blindly. Reacting blindly to your ego, to your thinking mind, to whatever, that is the source of all the things about which we’re most embarrassed.

It’s what caused my panic attack. It’s what’s caused me to go to war zones without thinking about the consequences: coming home and getting depressed, and then blindly self-medicating. I find responding, not reacting, has been key in being better at everything I do.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed.