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In 2018, after thirty-two years of relishing in perfect eyesight, a routine optometry appointment indicated that it was time for me to get glasses. My first question was, “What about contacts?”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had strong reactions to tactile sensations. Mostly, I don’t like it. I pull away from touch, get little nauseated around pockmarked surfaces, and am picky about fabrics. The wrong type of sweater doesn’t just make me itchy, it makes me irate.

When the glasses hammer came down, I hoped that contacts or laser eye surgery would keep me from having glasses touch my face. But my eyes don’t tolerate contacts well, and I’m not a candidate for LASIK or PRK (something about odd shaped corneas.) Bespectacled I became, begrudgingly.

It was all manageable enough until covid hit and masks became the norm. I’ve loathed those pieces of scratchy cloth from the moment they arrived, not because of their (bizarre) association with political peacocking and righteous indignation, but because of the fury that rises with in me from having so much stuff on my face. The masks could be made of silk and I’d still want to burn every one of them.

Of course, they aren’t always optional—at least not where I live. I’ve gone through dozens of styles of masks, desperate to find one that doesn’t make me want to jump out of my skin when I have to put it on. The ‘ole surgical standbys are the least rage-inducing, especially if they’re black or white. (The blue ones make everywhere feel like a hospital.)

Overall, it’s been frustrating to step into anger every time I go somewhere with a mask requirement. Because there’s so much emotion swirling around the pandemic in the first place, I always assumed the irritation that arrived was connected to spending the last two years living in what can only be described as a clusterfuck.

But a few weeks ago, in a startling example of delayed logic, I had an epiphany: take off the damn glasses. My eyesight is strong enough that I can make my way through the world without specs. I may not recognize you in a crowd 100 feet away, but I can still make out the fuzzy brands of crackers on a grocery store shelf. When I simply removed the glasses obstacle, my anger evaporated.

For two years I’ve been hearing people say, “I don’t even notice the mask anymore,” to which I resisted the urge to punch them in the face. Now, I leave my glasses in the car peruse retail stores in peace. It’s been a revelation, I tell you. Such a simple solution, too.

It’s not always the destructive choices that that contribute to melancholy or anger. Sometimes, it’s a basic assumption you’ve learned to take as truth. In my case, the assumption was that my glasses were an extension of my body, always on me unless I was sleeping or showering. Because of that benign assumption, it never occurred to me that taking them off might actually beneficial. As a result, I spent almost two years fighting daily anger over something I was in control of all along.

My challenge to you, and a journaling prompt for those of you so inclined: Examine your life and look for opportunities to take off the metaphorical glasses. How might this contribute to inner overall peace and happiness?

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September 23, 2022

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September 16, 2022

Three Weeks

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September 9, 2022

Wanting

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September 2, 2022

The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

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When I started Happiness Is A Skill, I did it for two reasons. First, I wanted to have an outlet to talk about mental/emotional health and antidepressant withdrawal without enmeshing myself in social media. The topography of those niches on Twitter is a nightmare, and I couldn’t bring myself to swim around in that muck.

Second, I had just landed a literary agent and we were prepping to send my memoir on antidepressant withdrawal out to publishers. I hoped that by starting a dedicated newsletter, I could keep my writing mind from getting rusty while also creating an outlet for my book’s key audience.

Well, I’m thrilled to announce that my memoir, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, will be published by Central Recovery Press in September 6, 2022! (And I didn’t even have to go on Twitter to make it happen!)

may cause side effects book pinterest image with text overlay

I’d be doing a happy dance over here, but frankly, I’m pooped. The news came through a few weeks ago, and because we chose to aggressively push for a Spring 2022 release, it’s been a whole lot of stress and frenzy in a short period of time.

I thought I was handling it all relatively well until I got struck down by an ocular migraine on Saturday night. Migraines, for me, are always a sign that I am wound too tight with the sort of existential tension that only seems to get worse when you “relax.” The solution isn’t necessarily to do less, but to change the fundamental process.

And so, Happiness Is A Skill is going to go in for a facelift. As much as I’ve enjoyed what I’ve created so far, it’s time for it to evolve so it can better support the book and the withdrawal/depression recovery community without taking added energy out of me.

The newsletter may look a little sparse over the next few weeks, but rest assured that it’s because I’m tinkering away in the background, getting ready to bring Happiness Is A Skill to a bigger audience. HIAS is going to be an integral part of my book’s release, so it’s not going anywhere.

To everyone who actually reads this every week, thank you. Artists need audiences in order to justify continuing their craft. I couldn’t have gotten this far without knowing real eyeballs were looking at what I was creating. And while my newsletter is child’s play compared to my book, both in scope and polish, it has been such a safe place for me to explore over the past year and a half.

Thank you for being a part of it so far, and thanks for sticking with me through this period of readjustment and growth.

I can’t wait for you to see what I have planned.

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

the fuckit bucket gold silver necklaces

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.

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

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

In a day and age when information travels at warp speed and lives can be irrevocably changed by one photo or a single tweet, there was something poetic about the speed of the 2020 federal election. All the bandwidth and technology in the world couldn’t move it along any faster than it was going to go. The outcome was too precarious and the stakes were too high for anyone to make an honest call. And so we waited, and waited, for more information to come in.

It is moments like this that pierced through my own fourth wall and grabbed me tight around the chin, forcing me to face the greater collective storyline and apply it to my own. While the United States idled at a crossroads that led us toward two very different futures, I also stood at a major junction. There were two choices, and I needed to choose one. Each somehow felt both beautiful and awful, and yet the rest of my life hinged on this choice.

It was too close to call.

But life imitates life. For all the faults of that election and the missteps of all the people involved, there was one thing huge lesson to learn from it: when a decision remains unclear, it is because all the information has not yet arrived.

We have conditioned ourselves to think that when we are presented with a choice, our only options are to pick one or the other and to do it fast. But there is an ever-present third choice that often holds the most power — the choice to wait.

Waiting is itchy. It prickles at you like a stiff wool sweater on a frozen winter night. But to rip it off too soon is to expose yourself to the elements without having first found shelter. If only you could wait until dawn when the sun rises to light the way. Life might look a little different then, the two paths now illuminated, obstacles in clearer view.

So we waited. And I waited, itchy and squeamish, for the information to come in. Because the outcome was too precarious. The stakes were too high.

It was too close to call.

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

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

I went for a walk this morning like I almost always do when I’m home in Nevada. My house is tucked up against the rolling desert, with trails zig zagging through the sagebrush. A small creek flows through the valley, prompting cattail to grow in the damp soil and mountain bluebirds to sing in the early morning sun. Cottontail rabbits and the occasional coyote bound through the hills, and there is no better chance of a good day than to begin it with a walk through the landscape I was born into.

I put on my coat and slipped my socked feet into a pair of stiff new boots, bought just a few days ago to get me through the winter. The half hour walk would double as an opportunity to break in the shoes in incremental bits. It will take dozens of these walks, I know, for the leather to soften and relax against my toes.

I locked my door and began to walk through the rows of neighboring townhouses and onto the trailhead. Not three minutes into the trail, I felt the unmistakable sting of a blister at the back of my left heel. Strange, I thought to myself, sure that there was no sign of the blister on yesterday’s walk.

I plopped down on a rock and pried my foot out of the stiff shoe. Sure enough, the blister was right there, pink and exposed. I considered turning around, but the birds were calling with gusto. In just over a week I go back to Vancouver, where I will be forced to quarantine in a one bedroom apartment for 14 days. But today I have the birds and the desert and the open sky, I thought to myself. I need to take it all in now, while I can.

Besides, the shoes needed a break in too.

So I kept walking, heel stinging. A few minutes passed when I saw a clump of teal colored plastic on the trail up ahead, a bag of dog shit that wasn’t there yesterday. I told myself that someone must be out on a run with their dog and that they left the bag of poop on the side of the trail for pickup on the way back…right? Because what kind of person kindly bags up their dog’s crap and then dumps plastic into the wilderness?

Giving the phantom dog owner benefit of the doubt, I left the teal bag and walked another thirty feet, heel screaming. Immediately, my eye caught a second bag of dog shit, black this time, and clearly from a different dog. Without thinking about what I was doing, I knelt down and picked it up. Then I turned around and went to the teal bag and picked that up too. I held up both bags and looked at them, suddenly aware that I was now saddled with a raw heel and two bags of shit excreted from dogs I don’t own. There was no point in walking on, so I limped back toward home.

For a moment, I considered getting angry. I could feel the choice to be angry. The jerks who left the bags of shit certainly deserved it, as did the boots that were growing sticky from the pool of my own blood. Both of these things took away my ritual, my solitude, the purpose of my morning.

But what good would come of the anger? Who would I have yelled at? Other than the tawny bunny hopping across the trail, not a heartbeat other than mine as far as the eye could see. Anger, in this situation, served no purpose. There was nothing left to but accept that today, the purpose of my walk was not to spend a little time in nature and break in my boots. It was to pick up other people’s shit.

It’s an apt and obvious metaphor—not every task is pleasant, things don’t always go your way, and there’s a lot of cleaning up the mistakes that other people make.

But hey, at least it’s garbage day. The bags of shit will only be in my world for a few more hours. And tomorrow, I’ll try again.

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

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

Back during my days of deep depression, one of my unconscious coping techniques was to put down the little things that brought other people joy. The phrase “that’s stupid” fell out of my mouth like a tick. Nothing and no one was safe. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Stupid. Just donate money without the attention. Disneyland? Stupid. The most miserable place on earth. Hobbyist birding? Stupid. Who cares about random birds?

This reaction, of course, came from a most selfish place. I couldn’t find joy in anything, and it pissed me off that delight seemed so easy for others. I never stopped to think that maybe they took responsibility for their own happiness and worked for their joy. It never occurred to me that maybe they had pain too, but that they didn’t let suffering define them as a person.

The ability to experience a glimmer of joy is a litmus test for your psychological state. When I work with clients in antidepressant withdrawal, one of the first things I ask them to do is to start noticing little flickers of creativity, joy, or clarity that tend to come up as the drugs leave their system. These nanoglimmers of light may be barely perceptible at first, as simple as a deep inhale of freshly ground coffee or noticing how your eyes linger on the details of a flower. For people working through depression and getting off antidepressants, these nanoglimmers signal the mind’s innate ability to stop the mental loops and detach from the physical weight of depression—even just for a moment.

In my experience, as the nanoglimmers grew from fleeting seconds into longer chunks of time, the use of the phrase “that’s stupid” faded from my vocabulary and gave rise to curiosity and spontaneity. Birding might never be my lifelong passion, but what did it matter if other people enjoyed it? Who was I to put it down when it had no impact on my life?

To let others do their thing without making it about you is a hallmark of healing. They are on their path. You are on yours. It may take weeks or months or years of hard work to grow one nanoglimmer into a life filled with joy, but noting the existence of a single nanoglimmer proves that it is possible. What you can do one, you can do again. With time, one can always become two.

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

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

No fate is worse for those with anxiety than the act of doing nothing. But there is one tool you were born with that can help calm your mind and body when the weight of a situation becomes too much: your breath.

I am an XPT certified breathwork coach. Often, with my clients going through antidepressant withdrawal, I use my training to teach them how to breathe through the unpleasant side effects. But the techniques are relevant to anyone who suffers from anxiety, and yet little attention is paid to our breath.

Though breath is the single most important life-force on the planet, studies suggest that breathing dysfunction occurs in up to 83% of anxiety sufferers. Breathing dysfunction can negatively impact the body in a number of ways, including reduced blood flow to the brain, and sleep apnea, and higher instances of stress and anxiety.

Anxiety is the body’s way of alerting you to potential danger. It’s that “fight or flight” response that historically, motivated our ancestors to get scared and run away from a hungry tiger. But these days, most people aren’t being chased by a tiger (or its metaphorical equivalent.) Instead, anxiety is created in our minds.

Just because anxiety is created in the mind doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Physiologically, the body doesn’t know the difference between anxiety created because of a physical source and one created in our head. Think of a nightmare, for example. Even though we are safe in our beds without any physical threats, the situation created in our mind can shoot us up out of bed, drenched in sweat, and panting as if the dream was as real as the mattress underneath us.

The breath is like a remote control for the mind, and learning how to harness its power can mitigate the body’s stress response. Several studies have shown that deep breathing, specifically belly breathing that activates the vagus nerve, significantly reduces the stress response in the body. The vagus nerve runs from your brain all the way down to the belly, with branches that extend into your throat, heart, and lungs. When properly stimulated through deep breathing, the nerve regulates the nervous system’s response by turning down the intensity of stress and anxiety.

By breathing with intention, each of us has the power to operate our internal remote control, thereby gaining some authority over the anxiety. With an undetermined future ahead, there’s no better time to gather tools to manage our new uncertain world. You’re going to need every edge we can get, so let’s start with the one you were born with: your breath.

Morning breathwork, to set a calm foundation for the day:

Cadence Breath

Designed to keep you mindful of your breath while also helping your body to kick into a parasympathetic (calm) state, cadence breathing is an ideal breath pattern to ground yourself first thing in the morning.

To begin, sit in a comfortable upright position, either crossed-legged or in a chair. Take a moment to become aware of your breath. Actually look at it. Can you see your belly going out and in? Or maybe your chest moves up and down? Are your lips parted, allowing you to take in air through your mouth? Or is your jaw clamped down tight?

No matter how you typically breathe, commit to spending the next 10–15 minutes breathing only in and out through your nose and into your belly. Keep one hand on your stomach for a tactile reminder, and feel that hand rising and falling with each breath.

Begin with a cadence tempo of 2:2:4:2. That means you’ll inhale through your nose for an honest count of two (one one thousand, two one thousand…), hold your breath for a count of two, exhale through your nose for a count of four, and hold your breath at the bottom of the exhale for two. The crux of cadence breathing is to keep your exhale twice as long as your inhale, so if you’re comfortable at 2:2:4:2, increase the tempo to 3:3:6:3 or even 4:4:8:4. The slower and deeper your breath, the more the vagus nerve is stimulated to lower overall stress.

Breathing for when the anxiety is too much and you need to calm down, now.

4:7:8

If you find yourself on the verge of panic and you don’t have 15 minutes to step away and collect yourself, the 4:7:8 breathing pattern can knock anxiety down in just a handful of breaths.

Simply breathe in the nose for four seconds, hold your breath at the top of the inhale for seven seconds, and exhale audibly out your mouth for eight seconds. This is one breath cycle.

Repeat the breath cycle three more times.

If you find the 4:7:8 too challenging, simply speed up your counting while keeping the inhale:hold: exhale ratio the same.

Breathing for bedtime, because insomnia and anxiety are inextricably linked.

Long exhale + humming

Though humming has long been a staple of yogic breathing and meditation, science has only recently revealed the potential reasons why. Our paranasal sinuses are the main producers of nitric oxide, a gas that plays an important role in vasoregulation (opening and closing our blood vessels) as well as neurotransmission, immune defense, and respiration. When we hum, our nasal passages produce nitric oxide up to fifteen-fold in comparison with quiet exhalation, which leads to lowered blood pressure, heart rate, reduced anxiety, and a grounding feeling of calm that can lull us off to sleep.

Know that there’s a high chance of falling asleep during this exercise, so make sure you’re ready for bed before you begin.

Lying on your back with your head in a comfortable position, simply close your eyes and inhale through your nose, taking in a big breath into your belly. When you’ve taken in a full breath, begin humming and slowly exhale out all your air. Keep the hum deep and low and long, with the vibration coming from the back of your throat rather than your head. Repeat the humming breath for 10 minutes, or until you fall asleep.

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

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

“The calmer and quieter you breathe, the larger your blood vessels open, enabling better circulation and distribution of oxygen throughout the body, including the brain. Oxygenate the brain—breathe less.”

– Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage

In 2018, two years after I’d taken my last antidepressant, I found myself still struggling to remain steady in an unmedicated world. After fifteen years of relying on antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs to do all the coping work for me, I didn’t have any sense of how to self-regulate my emotions or nervous system.

Around this same time, an acquaintance of mine, Taylor Somerville, became certified as an XPT Coach. Built on the researched-backed principles of managing stress response and wellbeing through breathwork, movement, and recovery, I went down the XPT rabbit hole and decided to get certified myself. Using Symmetry as a blueprint, my intention was to eventually use the XPT principles in my work with clients in antidepressant withdrawal.

Like most things in life, my plan strayed from reality. The majority of XPT’s methodology wasn’t a great fit for people in active withdrawal, but it was a perfect fit for where I was in my recovery. While Taylor went on to build Symmetry, a business dedicated to helping people regulate stress through breathwork and exposure therapy, I decided not to follow in his footsteps and instead, learn from him.

Two to three times per week, I pop into Taylor’s 45-minute, virtual breathwork sessions. Designed to combat dysfunctional breathing patterns and lower stress response, these sessions act as internal barometers, providing me with immediate feedback on my mental and emotional state.

You might be asking yourself, “How are breathing and stress connected? Doesn’t my body naturally know how to breathe?”

Take a look at this chart:

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the metabolic stress messenger in the body. Suffocation, for example, occurs when oxygen levels go down and carbon dioxide levels rise to lethal levels. Although the body can survive without air for 4-6 minutes, most people will panic within the first 30 seconds due to increasing CO2 levels that create uncomfortable sensations throughout the body. These sensations release stress hormones into the body which increase heart rate, constrict blood vessels, and create a flustered state. Assuming we are not actually suffocating, all of this makes for a continual, negative feedback loop. Sustained over time, our CO2 tolerance goes down and our body remains in a constant stressed and anxious state.

The good news is that breathing is the only system in our body that acts on both a conscious and unconscious level. Because we have control over it, we have the power to change the level of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood. That’s where intentional breathwork comes in. By learning to manipulate our breathing, we can reverse dysfunctional breathing patterns and increase our tolerance to CO2, which leads to a lowered stress response.

I’m sharing all this with you today because Taylor is opening his virtual breathwork sessions up to a larger audience, and I figured someone out there in Happiness Is A Skill land needs to hear about it.

Come join me! Hit this link to sign up!

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

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

A parable, borrowed from the religious but relevant for the atheists: A man is alone in his home when the storm comes. The local news channel tells him to evacuate, to move to higher ground, but instead, he shakes his head and says, “I will pray to my God and he is going to save me. I have faith” The rain beats down and the wind picks up. The streets start to flood and just as the water begins to rise over the man’s driveway, a knock comes at the door. A local policeman, with a rowboat, says it’s time to go, but the man shakes his head and says, “My God will save me. I have faith.” The wind wails and the water rushes in. It rises to the man’s ankles, knees, then hips. He climbs the stairs to his second floor, where it is dry. He waits there, for hours, and when a break in the storm comes he spots someone in a motorboat. “Come with me!” the floating figure yells, “The storm is only half over!” But the man shakes his head and says, “My God will save me. I have faith.” The eye of the storm gives way to more rain, more thunder. Water tickles the man’s toes, and he climbs the ladder to his attic. The wind rips the roof off his house, but when the man looks up, a rope is falling from a helicopter. “Grab on!” the pilot shouts, but the man shakes his head and says, “My God will save me, I have faith.” Reluctantly, the pilot recoils the rope and flies away. The man waits for his God to save him. But the house begins to crumble and soon the water is rising rising rising. It splashes over his legs and his torso and soon it is at his shoulders, his neck, his chin. The last thing the man notices is how the water shimmers on the tip of his nose. When the man reaches the heavens, he finds his God. “I had faith in you,” the man says, “I prayed to you. I believed in you. And you didn’t save me. You let me drown!” To this, the man’s God replies, “I sent you a warning, a rowboat, a motorboat, and a helicopter. What more could you ask for?”

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

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

Happiness Is A Skill was created as an outlet for me to reach the kind of people who email me every day. Ever since my Washington Post Article, “I spent half my life on antidepressants. Today, I’m off the medication and feel all right” became the #1 read piece on WaPo National the day it was published, my inbox likes to fill up with people who are struggling to get off their antidepressants or benzodiazepines. I respond to every person who contacts me, and often that correspondence leads to a longer conversation.

About 12 weeks ago, after one of these conversations melted two hours away from my day, it occurred to me that I was spending a lot of time saying similar things to lots of different people. Why not take all that information and distill it down into a digest that could reach lots of people at once? And so Happiness Is A Skill was born. There are two overarching themes of these emails. First, people are desperate to find relief from the pain of withdrawal, all while trying to process the anger they have for prescribed drugs and doctors that were supposed to help them. Second, they are looking for someone, anyone, who understands. Psychiatric drug withdrawal is an excruciatingly long and lonely process that you simply cannot relate to unless you have experienced it. It’s rare to encounter another person going through withdrawal in the wild because people in severe withdrawal probably aren’t leaving their house. (And those who are experiencing mild or moderate withdrawal are likely so irritable that they aren’t exactly projecting warm fuzzies.)

Until recently, antidepressant withdrawal was swept under the rug by psychiatrists and doctors, largely due to a lack of substantial research surrounding long-term use and tapering. (Antidepressants and benzos are designed, studied, and tested for short term use, i.e., weeks. There is not a single study on the effects of long-term antidepressant use, and yet 1 in 4 people on antidepressants have been taking them for more than 10 years.)

But in 2019, a group of American and British psychiatrists came together and urged national withdrawal guidelines to be updated after they “discovered” what many patients already knew: it is a hell of a lot easier to start taking antidepressants than it is to get off of them. In a systematic review of existing research, the authors determined that “nearly half of those experiencing withdrawal (46%) report it as severe, and that reports of symptoms lasting several months are common in many recent studies.”

The authors go on to say that their evidence directly contradicts the position of the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines, which state that “[withdrawal] symptoms are usually mild and self-limiting over about 1 week.” In short, this research shows that half of all antidepressant users will likely experience withdrawal of a substantially longer duration and severity than current guidelines recognize. Shockingly (to this American, anyway), the NICE guidelines were updated to reflect these findings, giving suffering withdrawal patients a smidgeon of validation. All this to say that the tides are changing. My article and others like it are finding space in mainstream media and a new cohort of psychiatrists and researchers are starting to take our claims seriously. But arguably the biggest contribution to bringing this issue to light is the new documentary, Medicating Normal. I had the pleasure of watching a screening a few days ago, and it both broke my heart and fed the fire within me.

A synopsis:

“Combining cinema verité and investigative journalism, Medicating Normal follows the journeys of a newly married couple, a female combat veteran, a waitress and a teenager whose doctors prescribed psychiatric drugs for stress, mild depression, sleeplessness, focus and trauma. Our subjects struggle with serious physical and mental side effects as well as neurological damage which resulted from taking the drugs as prescribed and also from attempting to withdraw. Says one psychiatrist, ’There’s not a chemical on the planet, to my knowledge, that can require years to tapernot Oxycontin, not crack cocaine, not heroin, and not alcohol. But psychiatric medications, any tapered patient will tell you, can take sometimes years if possible, at all.’ … [Medicating Normal] is the untold story of what happens when profit-driven medicine intersects with human beings in distress.”

Statistically, a good chunk of Happiness Is A Skill readers are taking some form of antidepressant or anti-anxiety/benzodiazepines like Xanex or Ativan. For those people, none of this is meant to scare you or bully you into getting off the drugs. You do you. However, if you ever do want to get off these drugs, I implore you to do your research and work with your doctor to create a slow, deliberate tapering plan. Doctors are not required to give patients informed consent when it comes to psychiatric drugs, nor are they well versed in safe withdrawal. It’s not their fault. The medical system simply doesn’t teach them how to take people off these medications. It is possible to wean off psychiatric drugs safely and with few side effects, but the techniques for doing so are being developed at a grassroots level by people who have experienced it, like me. For more information on safe withdrawal, check out SurvivingAntidepressants.orgMad In America, and the Inner Compass Initiative. You can also email me directly. Lastly, Medicating Normal is being screened virtually at several film festivals and hosted events. I would recommend it to anyone who is taking antidepressants or benzos, but I believe it should be required watching for all practicing psychiatrists and doctors. You can find tickets and upcoming screenings here.

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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Over the past six months, I have watched a curious trend develop amongst the people in my circle. Faced with a clear threat —COVID-19- two courses have emerged. First is the group that follows whatever rules and precautions that exist where they live but who also generally accept that COVID is a part of life. These are the people who went back to the gym when it opened, socialize within their bubble, and go to restaurants. Life is normal (ish).

The second group follows strict, often self-imposed rules. One thirtysomething friend of mine hasn’t left his house since March. Another makes sure never to miss the nightly news, so she can stay informed on the latest numbers. Still, another barricaded herself in the attic to keep distance from the family. They put these practices in place to keep themselves safe. They are running from the threat. And it’s been working. Until now.

The thirtysomething friend came down with a fever and a deep, dry cough. Coronavirus or otherwise, he asked himself, “How the hell did I catch something when I haven’t left the house?” The friend watching the nightly news experienced so much anxiety that she gave herself raging ulcers that ate through her stomach lining. And the acquaintance in the attic? She developed a lung infection unrelated to COVID but refused to go to the hospital because she was worried about catching COVID. The lung collapsed. She was hospitalized and left with a much bigger problem than the initial infection.

It is a most human act to focus on an outside predator, convincing ourselves that if we just get stronger or run faster, we will evade danger. But the process of protecting ourselves from an obvious beast can skew our perception. Fixated on a single threat, we lose our peripheral vision and are blindsided by an unexpected blow…even though signs were there all along.

At its core, this tendency stems from the brain’s inability to truly conceptualize its death. That’s all we’re doing right? Telling ourselves that if we stay inside, watch the news, and keep away from other people we will not die. Death is a scenario that will befall other people. But not us. Because we are in control.

Except, we will die. Yes, even you. Fixating on this one particular method of death is futile. Avoiding it does not eliminate the end result. It simply shifts the target.

Easier said than done, of course. Your psychology, risk tolerance, physical health, and life experience will dictate how you handle a crisis with so many unknowns. But no matter your particular brand of peccadilloes, it’s worth asking, what exactly are you running from? And what is happening around you, when you’re blinded by the chase?

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September 16, 2022

Three Weeks

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September 2, 2022

The Ashton Manual: A guideline for withdrawing from psychiatric drugs

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Happiness Is A Skill is 10 weeks old today! Such a wee milestone in the grand scheme of life, but in internet years, HIAS is entering its awkward teenage years. I’ve been at it just long enough to know it needs some tweaks, but not so long that I know what those tweaks are.

And so I ask, what do you want to see? Tell me how I can help you.

If you prefer actionable issues like last week’s How To Neuter Your Social Media for Optimal Mental Health over more thought-provoking issues like Awakening to the Work of a Human Being, tell me. If you want fewer things to read and more product recommendations, tell me. If you want more of a psychiatry focus, tell me. More philosophy, tell me!

If I am asking, it means I want your input. In fact, I need your input to make this work the best it can possibly be. That is why we ask for help — to get the information we don’t have in order to make our lives and projects better.

And yet, few people ask for what they need, and even fewer ask for what they want. Instead, they sit and wait for someone else to intuit the answer and take action, which never happens.

It took me 31 years to understand the power of asking. For most of my life, I operated in a paradigm of radical competency. Asking for anything, help or otherwise, was not part of my vocabulary thanks to a healthy fear of looking stupid and of appearing “high maintenance.” My strategy, instead, was to keep my mouth shut and — when smartphones entered the lexicon — excuse myself and Google answers in the bathroom.

The problem with this strategy is that it does not expand knowledge or possibility. At best, you get a quick answer. At worst, you get no answer. It does not offer any room for discussion and actually stops us from engaging in the deeply human urge to help each other.

Research (and common sense) tells us that doing good in the world not only makes us feel better but that it is good for us. This holds true for actions big and small and is not confined to altruism or volunteering. Simple actions, like giving someone directions or showing your support for someone who is suffering, benefit you too. These actions, defined as prosocial behavior, create heightened empathy and responsibility toward others, which in turn bring a sense of meaning and purpose to the helper. By refusing to ask for help, you cut off the opportunity for someone else to engage in prosocial behavior that benefits both of you.

I realized the power of asking somewhere in the Portuguese countryside, back in 2017. I was leaving a restaurant with a group of friends, unopened bottles of wine in hand. As we boarded the van, someone realized that we didn’t have a corkscrew. Because there was an element of drinking to the day, this was a clear problem. While a group of us tried to (poorly) communicate with the driver to see if we could make a stop somewhere to buy a corkscrew, a woman named Michelle rolled her eyes and said, “I’m just going to ask the restaurant to give me one.” She bounded off the bus and back into the establishment.

I couldn’t believe the audacity. She was going to ask a restaurant to give her a corkscrew for free? How…rude?

Michelle returned a few minutes later, waving the corkscrew above her head.

“They just gave it to you?” someone yelled from the back of the van.

“Yeah?” she shrugged, befuddled at our bewilderment. “It wasn’t a big deal. People will do anything if you just ask for what you want.”

And it’s true. After the corkscrew moment, I began testing the asking waters. Here’s a shortlist of things I’ve received over the past few years just because I asked:

  • My job as a recipe developer for Working Against Gravity. They didn’t post a job, but I saw a need for my services so I emailed and asked to work with them.
  • Raising my price per word for another client from $.35 to .$50.
  • Countless upgrades in seating arrangements, from tables at restaurants to airplane seats
  • A major medical bill reduction
  • Endless refunds for shoddy products
  • A close friend, after being the first one to ask to spend time together
  • An endorsement blurb for my book from an internationally recognized author (and he hasn’t even read the book.)
  • A short-term rental apartment in Seattle

Of course, it’s important to recognize the difference between asking for what you want and taking advantage. Asking a restaurant to take back a salad because the chicken is burned to a crisp is different than eating most of the salad, sending it back, ordering a steak instead, and then expecting the steak to be comped on the house.

Tone and wording are important, too, which is where the idea of prosocial behavior comes back into play. Asking for what you want — and getting it — hinges on reciprocity. Someone else has to do something for you, and the best way to make that happen is for the other person to benefit, too.

When dealing with a medical bill, for example, asking “Can I have a discount?” sends a very different message than, “Is there anything you can do to help me?” The former is self-serving, whereas the latter asks the other person to be the hero. And people like to be the hero because it makes them feel good.

Asking doesn’t always guarantee a “yes,” but the more “no” you get, the less each one stings. It all becomes second nature after a while, and the universe flows a little easier.

So I ask, what do you want to see? How can I help you? Respond to this email and I promise, I’ll get back to you!


Amanda Palmer: The art of asking | TED Talk
Amanda Palmer: The art of asking | TED Talkwww.ted.com

Amanda Palmer is a controversial singer and artist who garnered media attention—and a good chunk of revenue—when she walked away from her big music label and started giving away her music for free. Her strategy? Ask people for support and give them meaningful work in return. They will always come through.


7 Effective Ways to Ask for Help (and Get It) | Psychology Today Canada
7 Effective Ways to Ask for Help (and Get It) | Psychology Today Canadawww.psychologytoday.com

You know you should ask for help…but how? This article breaks down seven different strategies.


Selfless acts: How Americans are helping each other through the coronavirus | TheHill
Selfless acts: How Americans are helping each other through the coronavirus | TheHillthehill.com

The news only shows the doom and gloom, but all over the wold, people are stepping up and helping each other.


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Gratitude. Oh how I loathed that word for so many years. Throughout the depths of my depression, gratitude taunted me like a schoolyard bully sniggering at the poor kid’s hand-me-downs. What was there to be grateful for when my world was nothing but darkness and pain? Why be grateful for the basics of life — food, water, shelter, breath — when I didn’t want to live in the first place? How could I create a practice around something I didn’t feel?

It’s not that I didn’t try. For a while, I scribbled in a gratitude journal. Or as I referred to it, a fucking gratitude journal. When that didn’t work, I tried a gratitude jar, but all I wanted to do was shatter the thing against the wall. Then I tried reading some Stoic philosophy. And listening to Oprah. Nothing stuck. Gratitude, I determined, was for suckers or the anointed. I was neither.

Color me surprised when, in January of 2017, I stood in front of a lopsided fir tree growing just off the highway in Prague and felt a surge of gratitude so great, it warmed me down to my frozen toes. It’s like its needles reached into my heart and jolted me awake with the force of a defibrillator. I stopped cold in the middle of the sidewalk, turned, and stared like it was the first tree I’d ever seen. They grey highway and the grey sidewalks and the grey sky melted away, leaving nothing but the deep green tree swaying in the breeze. A sort of tingle twitched between my shoulder blades that flooded through my body — gratitude for life itself.

I went back to the tree nearly every day during my four weeks in Prague, trying to encode the flush of gratitude into my cellular memory. I worried that the tree was a beacon I might never find again, like I would leave the city and lose the signal. If I could only hold onto it and recognize it, I figured, maybe it would find me again.

And it did. Slowly but surely, it did.

When it comes to living a happy life, gratitude sits at the center of almost every teaching, philosophy, and religion. The Bible says, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18.) The Buddha said, according to Kataññu Suttas scriptures, “A person of integrity is grateful and thankful. This gratitude, this thankfulness, is advocated by civil people. It is entirely on the level of people of integrity.” The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius coined the phrase, “the attitude of gratitude” and the modern spiritual teacher, Ekhart Tolle, says that “It is through gratitude for the present moment that the spiritual dimension of life opens up.”

But for years, no matter what I tried, I couldn’t access it. Why?

Two things are at work here. First, gratitude is a feeling, not a reasoning. In my experience, it is impossible to access gratitude through the intellect alone, which is why my attempts at gratitude jars and journals failed. The practice was there but the embodiment was not, and without the physical and emotional connection, the reasoning was futile. This is the same reason why it’s useless to tell kids to clean their plates because there are starving children in Africa. Knowing that people are starving is at odds with the fact that the kid feels full, and the lesson does not sink in.

Second, gratitude is no match for grief, loss, or the untrodden path of phenomenal change. It is simply too delicate, too nuanced. The image of a flower tossed into the base of a waterfall comes to mind. Beauty and wonder crumble under thousands of pounds of force.

The waterfall could not thin and let gratitude shine through until I began to stabilize from antidepressant withdrawal and work through the grief — and subsequent depression — of losing my father. But once I finally felt gratitude, I learned to recognize it when it randomly showed up. After recognizing it a few dozen times, a practice allowed me to access gratitude on command. Only now does that gratitude journal serve its purpose.

Think of it as software. Until the software is downloaded onto the hard drive, the computer cannot access it. But you must format the hard drive to remove any corrupt data before the software can be downloaded, otherwise, the software will also corrupt. But once the hard drive is formatted and software is downloaded, the computer can run the program. It runs best when the hard drive is clear of viruses and clutter, but as long as you clean up the hard drive now and again and don’t let malware seep into the system, the software can run forever.

This is gratitude. It must first be felt before it can be regularly accessed, but it cannot be felt until the corrupt energy is cleared away.

Thus, the first step to healing and happiness is not “be grateful.” It’s to start clearing the corrupt files, one byte at a time.


From Productivity to Psychedelics: Tim Ferriss Has Changed His Mind About Success | GQ
From Productivity to Psychedelics: Tim Ferriss Has Changed His Mind About Success | GQwww.gq.com

I find few interviews to be truly worth reading, but this interview with Tim Ferriss is packed with useful nuggets about managing the mind and overcoming yourself. A quote: “The inescapable fact that if, at best, you tolerate yourself, and more often berate, hate, or criticize yourself, how can you possibly fully engage with others, accept and love them, and find peace of mind and life?”


The secret to happiness is simple: live like a Stoic for a week | The Independent
The secret to happiness is simple: live like a Stoic for a week | The Independentwww.independent.co.uk

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, obviously the roads – the roads go without saying. How about guidance for how to live in the 21st century? That seems less likely, but in fact the last few years have seen a flurry of interest in the work of three Roman Stoic philosophers who offered just that.


Why you can smell rain
Why you can smell raintheconversation.com

The smell of rain, or petrichor, is one of the few sensory experiences that instantly transports me into a state of gratefulness. But why does that smell happen? This 2 minute read explains why.

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