Dan Harris Overcame Depression, Anxiety With This

WebMD's Q&A with the news anchor and author.

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on March 24, 2016

On June 7, 2004, before a Good Morning America audience of 5 million viewers, ABC anchor Dan Harris had a full-blown panic attack. Halfway through a story about cholesterol drugs, he began frantically blinking and gasping, struggled to form a coherent sentence, and abruptly bailed out with a premature "That does it for news."

To Harris, who'd been self-medicating off-the-clock with cocaine, the episode was a wake-up call to seek help for depression and anxiety. He ultimately found it through meditation.

Now, when he's not co-anchoring Nightline, he's promoting his 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, and his new meditation app aimed at "fidgety skeptics" like himself.

You say meditation has a public relations problem. What does that mean? Traditionally, the perception has been that it is for hippies and you have to wear funny outfits or join a religion or sit in a weird position. Things are changing. It is racing into the cultural mainstream and people are realizing it is not BS. But people assume "my mind is so busy I could never do it." You can.

What convinced you to try it? If you had told me several years ago that I would end up being an evangelist for meditation, I would have coughed my beer up through my nose. But the science made me try it. There are a lot of health benefits.

Like what? You rewire your brain. One 2011 Harvard study [of new meditators who practiced 27 minutes daily for 8 weeks] showed that gray matter in the area of the brain associated with self-awareness and compassion literally grew, and the area associated with stress shrank. Other studies show that parts of the brain associated with thinking about ourselves, our past, and our future go quieter in long-term meditators even when they're not meditating. Essentially, they set a new default mode that is more present-oriented.

But isn't it important to think about the past and future? Yes. To a point. But when you are unaware of this nonstop conversation you are having with yourself, it yanks you around. Meditation teaches you to distinguish between useless rumination and constructive anguish. Also, studies show we are happiest when we are focused on what we are currently doing. Our propensity to not exist where our actual life is -- right now -- does not serve us well in terms of psychological well-being.

Can meditation help you maintain a healthy weight? Yes. It teaches self-awareness, and you can channel that to curb overeating. Just notice: Are you eating right now out of taste or boredom or because you are genuinely hungry?

Can it improve mental health? The science around meditation is strongest in the areas of anxiety and depression. Some studies show meditation is as effective as medication.

Your book is titled 10% Happier. Why? I am still the same guy. Still super-ambitious. Still have the capacity to be a shmuck. But this makes me about 10% happier. That's a good return on investment and is not reckless over-promising, like so much of the self-help industry is.