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When I began Happiness Is A Skill early in the pandemic, I imagined it as a space where I could freely share my tips and strategies for recovering from depression and antidepressant withdrawal. Sixty-eight issues later, I’ve decided it’s time to bring in other voices. As much as I’d love to pretend I have all the answers for everyone on the planet, the truth is that the first step to becoming a great teacher is being a great learner.

Happiness isn’t like riding a bike. You don’t learn it once and know it forever. It requires maintenance, and without practice, can slip away. When you return to it, weeks or years later, it can feel like you never learned it at all. I am deeply curious about how other people learned happiness, what techniques they’ve developed to keep themselves on track, and how they know they’re sliding off track in the first place.

I’ve reached out to a slew of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Even though we’re all in different situations, at the heart of it, I believe that depression and anxiety feels roughly the same for each individual, with varying degrees. If you’ve experienced either one, you know what it’s like to feel like your body is made of lead or for your heart to jump into your throat. You know what it’s like to lack motivation and curiosity, for the world to literally lose its color. You may not know how to recognize early patterns that signal an incoming bout of mania or melancholy, but learning to recognize those signals early is part of the practice.

Jenny Blake

This week, Jenny Blake (@jenny_blake), international keynote speaker and author shares her strategy for managing overwhelm—a feeling she is all too familiar with. After launching in 2016 as the top career pick by Axiom Best Business Books, Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One, by Jenny is now the go-to career development framework for forward-thinking organizations, pivoters, and entrepreneurs. Her next book, Free Time: Lose The Busywork, Love Your Business, tackles all that creates overwhelm in work and life: hustle culture, busywork, and overly-complicated systems.When asked to share a strategy to manage difficult or stressful times, Jenny said:

“As a highly sensitive introvert, sometimes the basics of family life—on top of running my own business—overwhelm me. I check my energy gauge to see if I feel like I’m drowning (as I did recently), treading water, or gliding and in flow. As much as I wish I could consistently be a good partner to my husband and dog mama to my two-year-old German shepherd within the constraints of my day-to-day and our WFH-household, sometimes I just need an escape. Booking a 3-night “staycation” or “workcation” in the city (I live in Manhattan) recharges me like nothing else. I know it’s not always financially feasible for everyone, and it can certainly feel like an excessive luxury (at first) to spend on room-and-board in one’s own city. But if I go into the trip with clear intentions (either deep rest, or deep work), I always come out with a renewed sense of self, feeling like it was a priceless investment.I got this idea from Cheryl Strayed and Maya Angelou, who said it was integral to their writing process.”

Two things stick out to me. First, Jenny stops to check in with herself before making any decision. Is she drowning, treading water, or gliding in the flow? Drowning signals a need to escape. Treading water is manageable, but it could also be a warning that an escape may be needed in the future. Gliding in the flow is calm, easy. All is well.

If she decides she’s drowning, she books a staycation and sets an intention. It’s not enough to mindlessly book a hotel and hope it works out. She creates a plan and sticks to it. After all, we can’t know if we’ve succeeded unless we’ve created parameters for success.

How could you take Jenny’s strategy and apply it to your own life? If a staycation isn’t on the menu, how about a solo hike or an overnight camping trip? Perhaps it’s about asking those around you for an hour a day, away from the kids. Or hiring someone to help you complete a project that’s been weighing on you, like cleaning the house or organizing the garage. Maybe the first step is simply asking for help.


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The Root of the Problem

Over the past few months, I’ve been undergoing a series of extensive and thorough medical tests to get to the bottom of some physical issues I’ve been struggling with for years. Since well before these tests began, I’ve intuitively known two things to be true: something is inside me isn’t right but that whatever it is, it is treatable.

And yet, all my interactions with the American medical system thus far have led me to dead ends. Despite my history of extended international travel, few tests were run, with doctors dismissing my hunches because by most metrics, I’m a functioning individual. Instead, they assumed inconclusive diagnoses like IBS, lupus, stress, age. The solution was to relax! Drink more water! Eat more fiber! One doctor even suggested an antidepressant to help with gut issues, to which I smirked, raised an eyebrow, and resisted the urge to hand over a draft of my book along with my absurd $100 copay.

In September, after five years of this song and dance, the right professionals appeared at the right time. Instead of looking at each one of my issues in a vacuum, as if each symptom existed independently from the rest, my team analyzed my lab results and lifestyle from the perspective of an interconnected organism.

A saliva test, for example, indicated high cortisol (stress) levels but nonexistent estrogen and progesterone (sex hormone) levels. Looked at independently, the answer is hormone therapy that lowers cortisol and raises estrogen and progesterone. Simple, right?

Nope. A urine analysis revealed nearly nonexistent levels of metabolized cortisol, and a blood test showed signs of kidney dysfunction. Therefore, it’s not that my body produces too much cortisol, it’s that it can’t process it, which is a totally different problem that would not be fixed by lowering cortisol through drugs.

Still, this wasn’t the root of my complicaitons. My poor cortisol production was a symptom of a greater issue we discovered: a raging bacterial infection and parasitic presence, likely picked up while I was traipsing around the globe back in 2016. The constant stress of the infection increases cortisol production (and therefore lowers sex hormones because evolutionarily, it was unadvisable for our ancestors to focus on baby-making during stressors like famine or tribal war.) But because my gut is renting out space to unwelcome squatters, it’s not absorbing nutrients or electrolytes. Thus, I’m dehydrated no matter what I drink, which explains the kidney dysfunction, and the kidney dysfunction leads us right back to….poor cortisol processing! Hallelujah! Answers!

Why am I telling you this?

Two reasons. First, my gut bug story is a reminder to follow your intuition when it comes to your health. Half a dozen doctors dismissed my complaints, for years. I get it. They’re trained to look for extremes and to fit people into boxes of symptoms because that’s how we bill insurance companies. But the only person who knows you, is you. If you’re not a hypochondriac and you think something is off, follow that thread. Either you don’t find anything and you can breathe easy, or you turn out to be right.

Second, in going through this process, I was struck by how a whole-body approach to physical health is so similar to successful treatment of mental health. In both cases, few professionals actually look at comprehensive systems. An internist analyzes the gut and an endocrinologist analyzes the hormones, but at no point does either specialist talk to the other. The same is true for our approach to mental health. If you meet the criteria for depression, a psychiatrist gives you a diagnosis and a prescription slip. If you’re lucky, you work with someone who lets you talk a little bit about your wounds and your stressors for forty-five minutes, once a month.

While a series of lab tests were able to diagnose my root physical issues (the rent’s about to skyrocket, gut bugs), it’s rare to find people who are willing to dig around for root issues in their psyche. This work requires radical acceptance, ferocious commitment, and an unrelenting belief that it is possible to heal. It will ask someone to face their deepest shame, make extreme changes to their life, and to prioritize this work above all else. It requires financial commitment. It often gets worse before it gets better. It is hard. But it is also how we heal, how we build the strength to support a beautiful life.

I will be spending the next six months on a strict diet & supplementation schedule to evict the unwanted tenants living in my belly. What if you also spent the next six months committed to your physical and/or mental health? What if you went all in and committed to addressing the issues you know, intuitively, are bubbling inside your mind or body? What if you trusted that the work would pay off? What might your new life be like?


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Need a little giggle? Order one of my Fuckit Buckets™.

Look, we know that life is a special sort of disaster right now. Your closet is your office, the kids are still at home, and still your mother-law is calling you fat again. Let this little charm be a reminder that sometimes you have to chuck it in the Fuckit Bucket™ and move on!

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Coming September 6, 2022

May Cause Side Effects

Brooke’s memoir is now available for preorder wherever books are sold.

This is a heart-rending and tender memoir that will start conversations we urgently need to have. It’s moving and important.

Johann Hari, author of New York Times bestseller Chasing the Scream and international bestseller 
Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions

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This week, I wanted to draw attention to the work of Andrew Huberman, an American neuroscientist and tenured professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Huberman specializes in the visual system and how it affects brain development, neuroplasticity, and neural regeneration and repair. Our eyes, as it turns out, have two functions. In addition to helping us read, see colors, and identify objects, our eyes are one of two primary systems (respiration is the other) that help tell our brain whether to be relaxed or alert.

The most obvious example of this is how we use our eyes to communicate the time of day. Our eyes perceive changes in light and therefore, our brain tells our body to awaken or become sleepy through an “aggregation of neurons” that dictate things like metabolism (are you hungry?) and movement (do you want to be lying down?) This is why sleep experts recommend shutting off harsh lights and avoiding screens toward the end of the day. When your eyes perceive the light, it triggers wakefulness in the body instead of sleepiness.

pinteres image with text overlay

The eyes also have a direct impact on our inner state. Our pupils contract when we’re relaxed and dialate when we’re focused or under any kind of stress, good or bad. For example, when you’re staring out over a beautiful coast or vista, your pupils get smaller in order to let you take in the breadth of your surroundings. This panoramic vision opens our window to the world, literally making it look bigger, which leads to stress reduction. This is one of the reasons why we feel so good in nature.

Conversely, our pupils dilate when we’re focused or stressed. Now we see the world through straws, the peripheral fields of our vision narrowed. When the visual field shrinks, according to Huberman, it triggers an increase in alertness. In a negative experience, that alertness is called stress, anxiety, or fear. In a positive experience, it might be called flow, excitement, or infatuation.

Like breathing, this is usually autonomic. Or rather, we don’t have to think about how our pupils adjust to see, just like we don’t have to think about breathing to stay alive. But just like we can hijack respiration and use breathing to our advantage, either because we’re blowing up balloons or because we’re practicing breathwork techniques in order to manage stress, we can also direct our gaze to influence our state of mind.

When we’re in a state of anxiety or negative stress, we can cue our brain to calm down by forcing ourselves to expand our field of view, to literally see the bigger picture.

Huberman said in a recent podcast, “If you look forward and you expand your field of view, so you kind of relax your eyes so that you can see as much of your environment around you as possible to the point where you can see yourself in that environment, what you are doing is turning off the attentional and, believe it or not, the stress mechanisms that drive your internal state towards stress.”

In short, to help keep stress levels down throughout the day, look around. Take breaks from staring at your computer to look out a window or check out the patterns in your ceiling. And if you’re having a bout of anxiety, force yourself to see a literal, bigger world.

Need a little giggle? Order one of my Fuckit Buckets™.

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After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. My memoir on the subject, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, publishes on September 6, 2022. Pre-order it on Barnes & Nobles, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. For the most up-to-date announcements, subscribe to my newsletter HAPPINESS IS A SKILL.

may cause side effects a memoir book picture and author brooke siem

More articles from the blog

see all articles

September 23, 2022

The Flowering of Human Consciousness

read the article

September 16, 2022

Three Weeks

read the article

September 9, 2022

Wanting

read the article

September 2, 2022

The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

read the article