I Had A Panic Attack In Front Of 5 Million People. Here's What Finally Helped
Shortly after 7am 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."
Ironically, what was the most embarrassing moment of my life ultimately helped lead me to something that has significantly improved my life. Even more ironically, it was something I'd always considered uniquely ridiculous.
Here's what happened next: After my on-air meltdown (and another one about a year later), I consulted a shrink, who told me 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 30s. 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, my doctor explained, 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. I should make clear right here: I am not a stereotypical meditator. In fact, if you'd told me a few years ago that I'd ever willingly be writing an article for a website called MindBodyGreen, I would have laughed in your face.
I've had an allergy to all things touchy-feely and New-Age-y since I was five years old and my parents, recovering hippies, sent me to a yoga class for children where the teacher, disapproving of my jeans, made me strip down to my tighty-whities and do sun salutations in front of everyone.
Two things convinced me to set aside my lifelong prejudices and give meditation a try:
1. Learning that the practice doesn't require robes, incense, crystals, Enya, or "clearing the mind."
2. Hearing about the explosion of scientific research suggesting that meditation can do everything from lower your blood pressure to boost your immune system to effectively rewire your brain for happiness.
I'm not going to claim that I enjoy meditation. Wrestling the mind to the ground requires enormous grit. It's like holding a live fish in your hands. But it's absolutely worth it.
It is, quite simply, 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.
Of course, meditation not a miracle cure. Even after five years of daily practice, I still do dumb things. (Just ask my wife.) However, I believe the practice to be 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.
My belief is that meditation can be talked about in a down-to-earth, humorous, and non-hyperbolic way. It can be made attractive to millions of skeptical people who, like me, would never otherwise try it.
If you're on the fence about meditation, here's my advice: try doing it for just five minutes a day. Everyone has five minutes, no matter how busy you are. It won't be easy, but neither is going to the gym.
I suspect it will very quickly improve your ability to yank yourself out of the fog of fantasy and memory in which most of us live our lives. Eventually, it will also give you a different relationship to the voice in the head; you won't take it so seriously. If you don't see results in a couple of weeks, send me a note on Twitter @danbharris and tell me I suck. I meditate, I can handle it.