Have you ever wondered how celebrities deal with anxiety? As a psychologist who works with a fair number of celebrities and other people who are just really "on top of their game," I have observed that they actually do seem to process anxiety a little differently. One of the biggest differences is that they often know how to turn the anxiety into a source of energy rather than seeing it as purely an obstacle.
I was uber-thrilled when ABC News anchor and author Dan Harris (whom I have never treated for anxiety) agreed to answer a few of my questions on how he handles anxiety. Even though I know a lot about anxiety already (I do have a Ph.D. in psychology, after all), I definitely learned a lot from his responses. I hope you do as well.
You’ve talked about your journey with meditation being sparked by an on-air panic attack. Since then, do you still find yourself in moments of panic, or has a consistent practice in meditation and mindfulness helped to reduce these instances?
My view on the relationship between meditation and panic has evolved a little bit. Traditionally my answer has been a little bit glib, which is that the major variable that helped me stop having panic attacks was stopping doing cocaine. That's what got me in trouble in the first place—I had spent a lot of time in warzones as an ambitious young reporter after 9/11. I had then come home and gotten depressed and self-medicated with recreational drugs, including cocaine. Even though I wasn’t doing it that heavily, it was enough to provoke me to have a panic attack on the air. According to my doctor, it changed my brain chemistry. So, stopping doing drugs had a massive impact on my proclivity for panic.
That said, once the brain learns how to panic it gets pretty good at panicking. I really had to change my lifestyle in pretty significant ways, under the guidance of a psychiatrist who is an expert on panic, in order to reduce the odds. You have to do all the annoying things that your parents tell you to do—like get more sleep, eat well, exercise, avoid caffeine, etc. Meditation is part of that. All of these are preventive measures that even you out, calm you down, and prevent you from getting so frayed or frazzled that you are likely to panic.
I have long been of the view that panic is not very useful. I recently read The Dare Response by Barry McDonagh, and he wrote one thing in particular that I found to be quite useful. He recommends that when you feel the first icy tendrils of panic extending out through your chest or down from the top of your head, to do a sort of mental jujitsu move to say “bring it on.”
The response I habitually had was to desperately get out of the situation in order to stop the panic. If I turn around and say "bring it on, do your worst," the panic will just be a set of sensations which I know intellectually that I have a 1,000 percent chance of surviving, because I have before. I have found this thinking to be useful, and it’s actually meditative because one uses mindfulness to feel what’s going on in their body as opposed to being stuck in the panic loops of the discursive mind.
You’ve discussed your experience working in a highly competitive industry, and how meditation has helped you identify what is and isn’t “constructive anguish.” In your experience, how does this self-awareness about necessary stress help people reach their potential and achieve their goals?
I think it would be wrong for me to float in on a cloud of pixie dust and tell people they should never stress and that all worry is unconstructive. My dad had an expression, "The price of security is insecurity," that was sort of a veneration of hand-wringing. Misunderstood, that can lead to a lot of unnecessary worrying and this belief that I think is common amongst a lot of successful people that if they weren't freaking out all the time they wouldn't achieve anything.
I do think a certain amount of worrying and plotting and planning makes sense if you want to succeed at anything—from your profession to your parenting, or your volunteer work or relationships. But at some point, you pass the point of diminishing returns. One of my meditation teachers gave me a helpful mantra for moments where I am spinning out. When I find myself on the 17th or 18th run-through of all the horrible ramifications of a missed flight or a missed deadline or a pitch that doesn't succeed, my teacher's advice is to ask myself one question, which is, "Is this useful?" Is the stress that I'm doing right now useful?" Often, it isn't. I have exhausted all of the useful rumination that I can do on this subject. My resiliency, my energy levels, my relationships with other people would be way better served if I tried to focus on something else.
This doesn't mean the worry won't come roaring back, but you can get better and better at seeing where you're caught up. This is where meditation is useful—seeing where you're caught up in useful rumination and letting it go and switching the channel in your mind. This is beneficial for success because if you're caught up in a lot of useless rumination, it's a bad use of your limited bandwidth. You're running down your energy and reducing your resilience. And in my experience, it has deleterious impacts on my relationships, both personal and professional.
There's a great expression from a famous couples therapist, Esther Perel. She says the quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life. This is also true for your career. Work has increasingly moved to teams-based projects. If you’re unable to have good relationships because you're so stuck in your own head with self-centered concerns, you will suffer professionally. Turning down the volume on unnecessary stress and worry has a direct bearing on your ability to achieve your goals and succeed, personally and professionally.
How has meditation, and anxiety reduction through meditation, made you a better leader?
The word mindfulness gets thrown around a lot these days and is often a buzz phrase with no specific meaning. People use it and don't actually know what they're talking about. One very specific, serviceable, and user-friendly definition of mindfulness is the ability to see what's going on in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it. In other words, it's a self-awareness that allows you to not be so owned by whatever urge, emotion, or random thought is coursing through your mind at any given moment. I have found that, when interacting with other people at either of the places where I work—ABC News or Ten Percent Happier—I am way better at not getting carried away by my impatience, anger, or fear, and reacting wisely to things rather than reacting blindly. I'm not perfect at this, but becoming perfect is not a proposition of meditation. Hence, my whole 10 percent schtick. The cool thing about 10 percent is you can think about it as an investment that compounds annually. Lowered emotional reactivity is a skill that you can improve over time.
Well, that's part 1 of my interview! I am so grateful to Dan for taking the time to share, and I hope you check out part 2.
If the concept of using anxiety as a tool for energy appeals to you, or you want to learn about how meditation can help, I hope you'll check out Dan's book mentioned in the interview, or my new book Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety. Remember: Anxiety is going to be a different experience for each and every one of us, but there are definitely some tried-and-true tools that have been shown to work for most people, celebrities or not! Don't give up. When people are truly willing to learn tools for self-help, relief is usually closer than they think.