Very few of us have been taught how to keep our brains healthy.
We know too many sweets are bad for our weight. It's easy to remember too little sleep will affect our mood. Every child knows that a Band-Aid is the answer for a scrape or cut. But what about our brains? What are we supposed to do when our minds won't stop spinning? What do we do when we feel stressed all the time?
Each of these nine behaviors will not only make your brain healthier, they are free and everyone can learn how to practice them.
1. Talk to strangers
The first thing most of us don't realize our brains need is strangers. As I waited for the airport shuttle after a business trip, I struck up a conversation with a well-dressed, younger man. He had just returned from Dubai, and was in Boston for a gaming conference. I asked what he did. He was one of the world's top Halo players doing demos at the conference. He was also a travel agent who flew to the Middle East for less than $300. He was writing a book on how I could too. He told me all the secrets. In a 10-minute conversation, I was intrigued, entertained, and already planning my next travel adventure.
Research shows talking to strangers makes us happier. The why is what's so important. Our brains are constantly stressed these days by too much to pay attention to. We feel on edge because we don't know where to focus. That's simply the alarm in your brain, your amygdala, overreacting. Talking to strangers immediately gives you something to focus on. You get a shot of adrenaline from the alarm because you want to make sure this person is safe, but you also begin, sentence by sentence, to feel incredibly engaged. Suddenly your fear of the new or unknown dissipates and your frontal lobes, which have to fire for your alarm to turn down, are in full gear. You enjoy the novelty of a fresh conversation. And in the future, there is a powerful kicker. You will see strangers as a potential friend rather than a certain threat.
2. Go away
Every brain needs time away. If the simple idea of a vacation doesn't reduce your stress, consider one of America's great thinkers. If Thoreau doesn't leave Concord, Massashusetts and go into the woods, would he ever have become a celebrated writer and environmentalist?
Thoreau was away from his normal routine as a tutor and handyman. And in those two years, he was his most prolific and arguably successful as a writer. You don't have to go far or spend a lot of money. He was two miles from home living off selling a few crops. But that's not the only evidence that going away was good for his brain. When you read Walden, you realize being away, he had the time of his life.
3. Reframe everything negative
The third thing you must do for your brain is known in organizational behavior and political science circles, but not often enough in ordinary life. The technique is called reframing. Imagine your boss just yelled at you in front of the whole team. The negative thought that sparks your alarm is obvious: I am a failure. The possible reframes, however, are invaluable in jump-starting the rest of your day and your brain health. Imagine immediately, even in the middle of that scene, thinking, "Well, at least he noticed me." Or, "That wasn't fun, but it proves I can handle being embarrassed."
When you reframe, you make an ugly thought into a positive one. It is not just positive thinking because you can't lie to yourself and think you enjoyed the yelling. What you can do is think how the experience was valuable. When reframing becomes a habit, your alarm doesn't have negative memories of experiences to shut you down in the future.
4. Reappraise everything painful
The twist on reframing is called reappraisal. Many thinkers and therapists use reappraisal as a synonym or type of reframing. I separate it here because it is too valuable not to emphasize. Reappraisal is making meaning out of an ugly situation. The boss yells, you think, "I'll be ready for him next time." Or, "I didn't enjoy that, but now I know how to prepare for meetings differently."
Reframing takes the negative out of a memory and the weight out of a difficult moment. Reappraisal deepens the experience into a learning moment. When you learn, your brain gets healthier because it isn't afraid of a future threat. The boss will yell again. Now you know you can deal with strong emotion. Your brain won't forget that you believe there is no moment you can't handle.
5. Meditate in a way you look forward to
The science on meditation is clear. What's not for most people is what method to use. Here are three quick options to consider. For at least 12 minutes a day: Sit and breathe, imagine yourself in your favorite place, or repeat a mantra or prayer. Never forget there are many styles and methods of meditation. Don't meditate correctly; meditate in a way you can practice daily.
6. Transfer blame
Reattribution is the therapeutic technique of exploring alternative causes for events. You spilled the milk. No, someone else forgot to screw the top on tight. You missed a deadline. No, new information means a later delivery to get the project right. You lose your family's fortune betting the horses. You say to your spouse, "I got bad information." Obviously, the last example is playful, but in every case where you can take the burden off your shoulders, your alarm in your brain calms down.
This doesn't mean you don't take responsibility in your life. It means that certain things we experience are truly a result of causes beyond our control and recognizing that in many instances allows your brain to produce less stress hormones.
7. Find the mindfulness that works for you
Mindfulness is the art and science of being present. Myriad studies have proven it reduces your alarm. Less alarm heightens your ability to manage negative emotion that could lead to disease like depression. Maybe most valuable is mindfulness helps us engage in complex thinking. Want to be successful in the global economy? Your brain needs mindfulness.
The secret to brain health and mindfulness, however, is finding the ways that work for you. For some of us, mindful eating thickens our gray matter where sitting and breathing drives us crazy. Some of us love moving slower where others who can't imagine changing the pace of their lives. But even fast movers can listen more mindfully to be more present.
The best way to find what works for you: experiment. The forms of mindfulness you stick to are the ones that will make your brain healthier.
8. Leave the crazy people
Maybe not right away, but eventually, you have to take time away from the crazy people and environments. This doesn't mean you leave your spouse at the first sign of trouble. It means that each of us has a different tolerance for drama. If yours is constantly being challenged by the people in your life, you will melt down. Too many meltdowns is a clear sign. When your brain isn't healthy, it sends stress to remind you its time to make a change.
9. Forgive everyone
It's simple, and I saved it for last on purpose. In our mad, mad world, this may be the most important thing you can do for your brain, and it can have brilliant side benefits. Studies have shown people who don't forgive experience more stress and negative health impacts like spikes in blood pressure. The stress reduction with forgiveness, however, produces emotional benefits like less restlessness, nervousness, and sadness. In one study where forgiveness was part of an acupressure technique, participants were even able to maintain weight loss. Think about it this way. If we don't forgive, we know we experience more stress, and we might even get fatter. Doesn't that make the choice of whether to hold a grudge or let go easier?
These nine behaviors aren't always intuitive and they definitely take practice. But even adding one of them to your life will give your brain some relief and grow the good stuff between your ears. Find the first one that seems most attractive and start today. We have the power to take care of our brains.