Stories from Dr. Yukari, Story 42, 10% Happier

[Stories from Dr. Yukari ]

Guided by the hope of St. Nichiren, we continue to work towards a peaceful society. Honolulu Myohoji Mission collaborates with Psychologist Dr. Yukari Kunisue, a trained and experienced therapeutic life coach, to offer a safe online space: Stories from Dr. Yukari


Dan Harris on ABC news during his panic attack episode

Dan Harris worked for ABC news for over 20 year began his TV journalist career when he was 28 years old. Being ambitious and hardworking, Dan volunteered to participate in hardship assignments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the West Bank where the US were involved in dangerous conflict areas. During this time, he was one of the more popular news anchors who reported on difficult political and military related news stories. Before leaving ABC news for CNN, Dan Harris was considered to be the top anchor of Good Morning America Weekend. 

One day in 2004 when he was 32 years old, he began to feel his heart intensely race during the morning show. It was then when he had a panic attack live on TV before millions of viewers. He said, “I kept telling myself to calm down repeatedly. My hands were sweaty, my mouth was dry and I didn’t know what to do!” But soon enough, he could barely breathe. ABC kept rolling the video of Dan Harris having a panic attack while on air. (Scene begins at the one-minute mark)

A panic attack can occur when it is least expected, even during your sleep. The feeling of sudden terror you experience is often accompanied by chest pain, rapid breathing, sweating, and dizziness. Some even feel like they are having a heart attack.

“One of the worst things about panic attacks is the intense fear that you’ll have another one. You may fear having panic attacks so much that you avoid certain situations where they may occur” (Mayo Clinic). The repeated panic attacks may develop into a panic disorder, a type of mental illness, or to a more serious form of depression.

According to a medical specialist, panic attacks are caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters in your brain. Roughly two to three people out of 100 experience at least one episode of a panic attack. In America, people in their 30’s to 50’s, more women than men tend to suffer from panic attacks.

Our body is equipped with neurotransmitters called noradrenaline, a type of hormone that regulates sympathetic nerves when we experience stress. Sympathetic and para-sympathetic nerve systems have an important role to control our autonomic nerves.  It is similar to a gas pedal and brake in a car. The system balances between two nerve systems when we rest or take action. When the balance is off, it is almost like the car is constantly accelerating. Our body can experience excessive stress. 

Dan Harris was a young and ambitious man who had been experiencing extreme levels of stress from reporting from one battlefield to the next constantly being on the go. The stress he accumulated over time was enough to imbalance his autoimmune nervous systems. During this time, Dan Harris had been coping with this condition which inevitably led to him having a panic attack. He explained in his book 10% Happier, which he later published when he turned 40 years old, that he slowly learned to pay attention to the voice in his head. 

Dan was brought up in a house where both parents were successful physicians. Being excellent was the standard norm. He even received an Emmy along with an honorary doctorate from his alma mater. The voice in his head constantly told him to achieve higher and higher. He explained that he struggled to avoid the nagging voice in his head that often grew intolerable. In order to shut out the noise, he became a workaholic and was always ready to jump onto the next plane to chase a story. 

After the panic attack incident, he decided to confront the voice. The method of choice was a simple five-minute meditation. At first, he could not believe that he was doing such a “hippie-like” activity. Being a pragmatic scientific journalist, he was extremely skeptical of meditation. He said to himself that there was no way he would be chanting OM. But nonetheless, he told himself that all he would be doing is listening to the voice in his head. There would be no thoughts involving SNS, emails, texts, or other intrusive thoughts during the five-minute window.

Something strange began to happen. He realized that the voice was not a voice of reason. It continued to repeat that he could do better, he should improve, and he should find ways to challenge himself more and more. The voice incessantly criticized him by judging and controlling him. The voice was so loud in his head that his voice of reason deep within was silenced. The real surprise came after the five minutes passed and he was calmer and quieter. His mind was relaxed and his heart felt lifted. He thought really? Am I slightly happier already?

As a conscientious journalist, Dan decided to conduct diligent research on meditation. While continuing short meditation for five minutes a day, he began to try meditating for a little longer beginning with 10 minutes, then 15 minutes. The usual voice in his head nagged him asking what he was doing but he ignored it since he began to feel a little better every time. The voice also began to quiet down saying “whatever”. For the first time, he himself felt like he was the in charge. The voice at the core of his being made him feel a lot better and slightly happier as well. 

Dan Harris created an online program called 10% Happier along with an app. He continued to be slightly happier through this meditation practice along with spreading the word.