Dan Harris struggled with the darkness of anxiety. Then he found the light through meditation.
By Charles Curtis
Dan Harris has watched the video of what he calls the most embarrassing day of his life thousands of times.
The footage is from ABC’s “Good Morning America,” broadcast in June, 2004, during which the then-correspondent and sometimes-anchor reads news headlines off a teleprompter. Breathing heavily as if he’d just run a 5K, he stumbles over a word or two, slurs his speech, and abruptly sends the broadcast back to anchors Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer.
Viewers watching live on that fateful day may not have noticed too much amiss. But as Harris revealed a decade later, he had just suffered a panic attack on the air in front of millions of viewers.
That frightening moment sent Harris on a journey to learn what led to the panic attack and then discover the unorthodox (to him) solution that has helped the news veteran take control of his anxiety: meditation. The video of those few minutes he’s called terrifying and cataclysmic is now the perfect “before” snapshot he can show – and watch – during the countless speaking engagements he’s done since.
A nervous child and a worrier from the start, Harris grew up in Newton, Mass., just outside of Boston, the son of two doctors. “My parents sent me to a shrink when I was a kid because I was worried about nuclear war,” he says, “a traumatic, debilitating fear of it. I was in a study about the impact of the Cold War and all the news coverage [of nuclear threats] on kids. That screwed me up. It speaks to the kind of fragility I certainly had, coupled with a bottomless well of ambition.”
That drive, along with a belief in the mission of journalism to serve the public, led him to a career in broadcast news, starting first in Maine with stops at Bangor’s WLBZ and Portland’s WCSH, then back to Boston where until 2000 he spent three years as anchor at New England Cable News. He was just 28 years old when he was hired to be an overnight anchor for ABC’s “World News Now” to replace someone by the name of Anderson Cooper. When Cooper balked at leaving, a go-getting Harris threw himself into whatever assignments he could get, and – after 9/11 – that included reporting from the front lines overseas in war-torn nations.
“It was the most unspeakably cool opportunity in the world,” he recalls. “I didn’t think I was going to be at the network at that young an age and I definitely didn’t think I’d be falling under the tutelage of a figure like Peter Jennings. When the opportunity came, I was not going to screw it up.”
That self-inflicted pressure was tamped down as Harris began reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and from the Gaza Strip during the second intifada in Israel. When the United States began its war in Iraq, Harris traveled frequently to Baghdad. But he’s sure he didn’t return with a case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder despite warnings from a producer that “re-entry could be a problem.”
Instead, Harris believes he became addicted to adrenaline, the thrill of being in a dangerous, high-risk situation, narrowly escaping peril and reporting it on television. So when he came back in 2003 and found himself tethered more to ABC to work as an anchor, he woke up every day constantly feeling ill. Doctors tested him for conditions and syndromes, but Harris never suspected the culprit: depression. A friend offered him cocaine one night while out partying and he discovered “a synthetic version of the thrill you get when you’re in a war zone.” Harris calls his use of the drug, along with Ecstasy, “episodic.”
But those chemical substances turned out to be responsible for the on-air breakdown. Though Harris explains he hadn’t taken drugs “in any chronological proximity” to that June 2004 broadcast, a bout of stage fight triggered the incident, along with what a doctor later pointed out was an increased level of adrenaline in his brain due to his drug use.
Harris got support from his coworkers – he remembers Gibson bolting from his chair as soon as he could to make sure his colleague was okay – and higher-ups. But no one would know it was connected to his drug use until years later. He was prescribed the anti-anxiety drug Klonopin and began seeing a therapist. But it wasn’t until another on-air (but less noticeable) panic attack in 2005 that he quit recreational drugs entirely.
A twist of fate and an unlikely source would lead Harris to getting the help he needed. In the early 2000s, Jennings assigned Harris – who said he was an atheist at the time and is now a “respectful and curious agnostic” – to work the religion and faith beat. In 2008, he stumbled on a self-help book by famed New Age guru Eckhart Tolle that discussed his theory on what leads us to make the wrong decisions.
“The voice in the head was why I had gone off to war zones without really thinking about the psychological consequences,” Harris says. “I came home, got depressed, was a workaholic and blindly self-medicated. A case study in mindlessness.”
The answer to his problems came after his wife, Bianca, gave him a book by Dr. Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist and author who focuses on the overlap of Buddhism and therapy. His simple advice: meditate.
“I harbored every stereotype and suspicion one could possibly harbor about meditation,” Harris says. “I thought it was for weirdos and freaks and that it would require things I wasn’t down for, like joining a group, wearing special outfits, sitting in an uncomfortable position or clearing the mind.”
Instead, the version Harris practiced is simple – start with five-to-10 minutes and focus on your breathing. “It’s a bicep curl for your brain,” says Harris. “You’re seeing how distracted you are, how that yammering voices yanks us around. This gives you the ability to fend off the suggestions of that voice. That’s mindfulness.”
Psychologist Dr. Bruce Singer treats patients throughout New York and Connecticut. He treats patients suffering from anxiety, insomnia and addiction with meditation. “Mindfulness offers an alternative to reactive states,” he explains. “It’s the working of the parasympathetic nervous system. We all have feelings and sensations and it’s easy to attach to those. It’s about learning to detach from different states because they’re transient.”
Singer’s familiar with Harris’s story and thinks it’s helped advance the idea of meditation as a kind of medication. “Dan was able to translate his own experiences into accessible and relatable language, though meditation was already moving in that direction,” says Singer.
Harris seems to agree – he knew he was ahead of a trend, and as he continued to expand his practice of meditation, he wrote a book, “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story.”
“I’m certainly ambitious,” he adds, “but I’m more mindful of it.”
He couldn’t have picked a more apt choice of words.