Carson Daly is sharing in new detail his first-ever experience with a panic attack, which ultimately led him to become the mental health advocate that he's known as today.
The TODAY co-host, 50, who's been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, shared in an Oct. 10 speech at the inaugural gala for Project Healthy Minds that his life changed one day while hosting MTV's "Total Request Live," a teen talk show from the '90s featuring musicians, actors and other celebrities. At the time, he was managing a variety of projects and living with a lot of stress, but he didn't realize how these challenges could manifest physically and mentally.
"One September day, I thought I was going to die," Carson, who was also the host for the inaugural gala, told the audience. "I was in my dressing room and I could sense all the normal live buzz of the show before it went on. I could hear the crowd outside. I could hear horns honking, normal 'Total Request' chaos, very usual."
"Then something very unusual happened to me," he continued. "Out of nowhere in my dressing room, I felt what I can describe as a snap in my brain."
"My heart started to race and fear went through my body. It was like somebody cracked one of those cold compresses at a Little League game and put it on my neck. I could see my producer talking to me in the doorway, totally normal expression on his face, saying something about Hanson, probably. I couldn’t hear him. It looked like he was talking in slo-mo. I was literally leaving reality. I thought, my God, I’m having a a stroke in front of Hanson. It passed in 30 seconds, but it felt like 30 minutes."
"Somehow I was able to get through it. I did the show on autopilot," Carson recalled. "But the whole time, beneath the surface, I was absolutely terrified that whatever had just happened to me, it could happen again at any moment."
After that experience, Carson went to the doctor, who ran some tests and told him he was physically healthy but had suffered a panic attack — a shock to the young TV personality, who was convinced it was cancer or something similar.
"I’ve never heard of a panic attack, much less considered it," Carson explained. "What was the trigger of this panic attack? ... I don’t know. As it turned out, the panic attack was a symptom. Stress and anxiety were the cause. I needed to slow down. I needed to make my unmanageable life manageable."
But despite trying to slow down, Carson continued to struggle with panic attacks, regardless of his efforts to eliminate triggers.
"If you’ve never had an intense fight-or-flight response, the urge to literally drop everything and run, it’s like an out-of-body experience," he said. "We call it derealization. Sometimes I can even see myself from above. ... This was not an ideal way to live."
Eventually he decided to take what he called "the single most important step in my mental health journey" — talking to a friend.
That empowered Carson to start seeing a therapist, which then led him to learn tools to manage his anxiety, such as meditation, breath work and medication.
"That doesn’t mean I’m never going to have a panic attack again. The body can always trick the mind," he said, recalling one he had while hosting “The Voice” with 12 million people watching. But he got through it. And he's now using his platform to help others realize they can, too.
"Mental health is no longer the Scarlet A on our chest. It is the bright red ‘S’ on our chest. We’re superheroes," he said. "We’re the avengers of a galaxy, jocks and misfits, all with their own issues coming together to help people and who knows, maybe even save the world."