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How a panic attack in front of millions led an ABC News anchor to find peace

ABC News anchorman Dan Harris (pic by ABC News)

We can all feel stressed at work, but imagine what it would feel like to take a panic attack in front of your colleagues — and five million others watching on.

In the spring of 2004, that’s exactly what happened to ABC News anchorman Dan Harris as he began a routine morning round-up of the news live on-air.

It was a job he had performed on a number of occasions and, having spent previous years reporting from the frontline in war-torn countries, Dan Harris wasn’t the type to suffer from stage fright. In fact, the young journalist was extremely ambitious, and thrived in the cut and thrust world of news broadcasting.

So what induced the panic attack?

After years spent covering conflicts in Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine and Iraq, Harris had become depressed by his early 30s. The thrill and the excitement of perilous overseas reporting — which he describes as “journalistic heroin” — had gone as quickly as it had arrived and so, to cope with the emotional slump, he began self-medicating.

As a result, this induced a spike in adrenaline levels, which ultimately led to his on-air meltdown, despite the fact Harris hadn’t self-medicated in the weeks prior to the attack.

By chance, his boss at the time (the late Peter Jennings) assigned the young journalist to cover features on faith and religion which, for the sceptical Harris, was hardly the dream ticket he’d been waiting for. Nevertheless, he explored the subject with gusto, examining the mainstream, the bizarre, and the neuroscience that threw up some interesting discoveries.

It was through these scientific findings that Harris began to dig deep into the practice of meditation, interviewing prominent figures such as the Dalai Lama, Eckhart Tolle, Joseph Goldstein, and renowned psychotherapist Mark Epstein.

As he began to notice the positive effects of the practice on his professional life, Dan Harris explained the impact of his new pastime by telling quizzical colleagues that meditation made him “10 per cent happier”.

This pithy phrase would become the title of his acclaimed first book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.

In an interview with Star 2, Harris — who has become an unwitting voice of the meditation movement through his 10percenthappier podcast — revealed that he wanted to help make meditation as commonplace as physical exercise.

He said, “The primary goal of the book was to normalise meditation, to make it look less weird, and I think with the amount of work done by so many people, along with the science and the prominent figures who have got behind the idea of meditation, it doesn’t look weird any more.

“I also wanted to help highlight what the science is showing: that the mind is trainable, and that happiness is a skill. You can have happiness, gratitude, patience and all kinds of positive emotions — the brain’s plasticity means that we can change our levels of happiness.”

Describing the fierce rivalry that exists within his profession, Harris alludes to the kind of work-related stress that the World Health Organisation suggests will be the biggest burden of disease by 2030.

“There’s a finite amount of airtime and you’re constantly having to fight for it,” he says. “There’s also a finite number of anchor jobs and key slots on big stories, and so you’re continually angling for those — it’s a zero-sum game. That creates an enormous amount of insecurity, envy, and all sorts of emotions that can be pretty poisonous if there’s no counterbalance.”

In his view, some stress can serve us well, but it’s when we get caught up in the incessant ruminating — particularly with negative thinking — that we start to cause ourselves problems which lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed. Instead, we should allow what he calls “constructive anguish” to help us maintain an edge, where we’re realistic about the competition we face, but not to the point where we become obsessed and engulfed by insecurity.

“I think there’s an urgency for meditation to become widespread; I think it’s a public health issue, and meditation is seeing a growing revolution because of that. It’s a very inexpensive, if not free, practice that anybody can do,” says Harris.

“It’s a sanity-enhancing technique, and we live in a world where people are under increasing levels of stress and burden, so it’s something that can genuinely make a huge difference in addressing that issue.”

Following from his book, the ABC News anchor found there was an opportunity to take meditation practice to people who were curious, and so began the 10percenthappier project. On his podcast, Harris interviews people such as singer Josh Groban and actor Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) who share, through their stories, the struggles, obstacles and doubts that have led them to search for authentic happiness.

When it comes to meditation, Harris is happy to talk to anyone who is interested in the practice, but strongly believes that advocates should avoid pushing their views on people who aren’t keen on trying it out. After all, one of the main attractions of meditation, he says, is that it’s a secular practice and, therefore, not something that should be proselytised.

For those who are interested in trying meditation, but who find some problems with starting, Harris has some practical advice from his own experiences to share. “Time is often a big obstacle that people see as preventing them from meditating,” he says. “People tell me they don’t have the time, but I think they’re saying something else. Often, when we get under the surface, a lot of people don’t believe they deserve the self-care. It can also feel like just another thing on the to-do list.

“But meditation needn’t become some super-charged, overheated thing. It’s OK to start, then stop, then start again. It’s OK to do one or two minutes a day, if that’s all you have spare. So it becomes about ridding yourself of all the excuses the ego throws up, giving it a try, and seeing how it works out for you.”

Published in The Star — Malaysia’s biggest-selling English daily newspaper. For more on emotions, mental health, mindfulness, and well-being, connect with me on Twitter @RealSClarke.

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