5 Habits for a Healthier Brain (and Life)

May 21, 2015

I started having seizures when I was around 5—the kind of seizures you see in the movies: fall-flat-on-the-ground-shaking-like-you’re-electrocuted-eyes-rolling-to-the-top-of-your-head seizures. These kind of seizures are now called tonic-clonic seizures, but when I was a little girl, they were called “grand mal” seizures, which means “the big bad.” Perhaps they changed the name because calling something “the big bad” isn’t very hopeful for patients. No one is really sure why I started to have them, but it made me curious at an early age to figure out how this mushy mass inside our skull works.

Related: It Only Takes 5 Minutes a Day to Keep Your Brain Healthy

So I started to study neuroscience after I had an EEG (electroencephalogram) at age 11. They stuck hundreds of little wires with glue-like substance onto my scalp. I looked like an alien child from the sci-fi novel Dune—but it led me to wonder: What are they measuring? Why? and How can I control these things called brain waves and electrical pulses? As you can imagine, it’s scary to have one of those deathlike seizures and think you have no control over them. That’s when science became my savior. I later discovered that these seizures could possibly be controlled without mind-numbing-zombie-behavior-inducing medication. At age 15, without my doctor’s or parents’ knowledge, I stopped taking that medication and haven’t been on it since.

Along the way to earning my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, participating in neuroscientific studies and working at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, I learned how we can all expand the capacity of our brain, not only to self-heal, but also to grow in ways we never imagined were possible.

So I’ve gathered my five top habits for neurological growth. These habits have eliminated those kinds of seizures for me. I still need to be careful—breaking my good habits will indeed have consequences. But in the last 25 years, I’ve only had two tonic-clonic seizures.

For you, these habits will reduce your stress significantly, increase your brain’s gray matter, tap into your subconscious mind for problem solving and reveal incredible potential.

Here are five daily habits that you can incorporate into your routine, starting today:

1. Sleep to reduce stress.

Ever wonder what happens to all of the stress we accumulate during the day? That car that almost hit you? Your child screaming at you? Even the unconscious stress of self-judgment? Where does it go?

Your beautiful brain collects it and saves it for when you dream to process away. Let me repeat: When you sleep, you process stress and trauma. So, one of the simplest and most effective things you can do is to get your full seven to nine hours of shut-eye each and every day.

2. Rise with the sun.

Your brain uses a cluster of nerve cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, located in your hypothalamus to regulate something called “circadian rhythm.” Circadian rhythm is the “master clock” in your brain that syncs all your body’s clocks. Abnormal circadian rhythm is associated with obesity, diabetes, depression, sleep disorders, hormone dysregulation, bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder.

In other words, wake up when the sun does—no more sleeping in! If you are a parent, this habit will come naturally as most kids naturally wake with the sun and are happy to be your alarm clock.

3. Take fish oil.

Fish oil has positive benefits on brain health. My kids go for the hard-core fermented cod liver stuff, and somehow we’ve apparently cemented this into them so well over the years that they ask for it daily although it tastes awful. They take it by the spoonful, but you can also get it in capsule form, which has a pleasant lemon aftertaste.

4. Be mindful and meditate.

Meditation taps into your subconscious mind (just below consciousness) and has innumerable neurological benefits. Not sure how to be mindful on an everyday basis and want an easy way to meditate? I like Headspace—it’s like a “gym membership” for your mind. With its meditation and mindfulness techniques, you can train your mind for a happier, healthier, more enjoyable life.

5. Make yourself uncomfortable.

Your brain needs novelty to grow. How do you know when you’re doing something that’s “new enough”? When it feels uncomfortable, awkward, weird, strange or it scares you. By doing things daily that are out of your comfort zone, you allow your brain to develop new branches on its neuron tree (also called dendritic pathways) instead of shriveling up into a sad dried out tree stump.

Truth be told, I could write a book on this, and I live my entire life around this premise. And although there are many more habits I’d like to see you develop, start with these. After all, can you imagine how incredible it would be if we all lived to our potential?

Related: 7 Qualities of People with High Emotional Intelligence

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