9 Things You Must Not Do to Your Brain

Brain health is not as hard as we make it, and a happier life is closer than most of us realize. The secret is not a mystery: A few better habits can lead to feeling a lot more comfortable in our own skin.
05/08/2014 10:42 am ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

As I drove calmly down the highway a few weeks ago, the woman in the middle lane rolls down her window. She tosses out a piece of paper -- the kind used to wrap a bagel or a donut. Then, she tosses out a banana peel. She finishes her morning dump run by catapulting her coffee cup.

It got me thinking, after mindfully releasing the unfriendly thoughts: What are the things we just shouldn't do because they either turn on our alarm, our stress response, or inevitably create secondhand stress for others?

1. Don't litter. Seems like the simplest thing; it seems so obvious, but Woodsey the owl's "Give a hoot, don't pollute" clearly didn't stick in too many good people's memory centers. Every piece of litter on the ground turns on a person's stress response. If beauty is the handwriting of the divine, litter is its eraser.

2. Don't eat the whole pizza (or cake). For five years I commuted every day across New England. A short day in the car included a minimum of three hours driving. To cope, I ate pizzas. Not slices: pizzas. Brains get used to that kind of indulgence and want more. Mindfully eat a slice or two and save the years it can take to get your body and brain healthy again.

3. Don't ignore your alarm. The alarm in your brain, your amygdala, fires every time it sees something that needs your attention or it wants to keep you safe. These days, safety is rarely the issue. Haven't seen too many bears in my neighborhood lately. But we're all paying attention to more screens, deadlines, longer hours, and crazy news from around the planet. Every trigger sends stress through your body and you can feel it. The good news: When you notice it, your brain begins to turn down the stress.

4. Don't skip yoga, church, or family dinner more than once in a row. Studies from professors at fairly good institutions like Stanford are revealing the heart and longevity benefits of yoga, church, and time with people we love. Sometimes, we skip these important communal experiences because we need some down time. That's brilliant managing of stress; but if you make it a habit, you lose the benefits of community we all need.

5. Don't say "yes" to anything without thinking first. Our alarmed, reactive selves love to say "yes" to things to prevent the conflict of saying "no." Don't. Instead, say, "Let me think about that and get back to you later today." Nothing stresses us out more than the anticipation and effort of doing things we don't want to do and can avoid.

6. Don't skip breakfast. Maslow 101: You're hungry, your brain will jack up your stress level until that need is met. Superfoods like blueberries are just begging to get your day started, and I hear they are pretty tasty in pancakes too.

7. Don't skip vacation time. When I read this stat, I realized once and for all that we Americans have lost our minds. We skip 500 million days of vacation time per year. Now I'm sure some folks get paid out for that, and really America? Your alarm system cannot reset, and your neural dendrites that keep you functioning at your best cannot grow if you're cranking all the time. Life is a marathon. Marathoners take days off every week and weeks to recover after months of training. Do your brain and the collective health of our world a favor: Go to the beach this summer. You could even enjoy yourself while you're there.

8. Don't sleep less than seven or eight hours. Maslow round two: Sleep and your neural dendrites grow, your brain gets rid of the toxins, and you have the energy to do what you love to do. Or you turn into an angry troll because your alarm knows you're tired. Troll or focused, healthy human being? You choose: nap time!

9. Don't yell at the airport ticket counter representative. I literally watched a woman this week snap at the airport ticket rep when she missed her connection; the next person smiled, apologized for the human race, and got what she wanted. Your brain is happier in first class and happiest when we ease the suffering we all experience on bad days.

Brain health is not as hard as we make it, and a happier life is closer than most of us realize. The secret is not a mystery: A few better habits can lead to feeling a lot more comfortable in our own skin.