Risky Behavior and Brain Health

I used to think risky behaviors were . . . well, risky, and dangerous, and unsafe. And they can be.

For teenagers or adolescents, risky behaviors are among the three vices: drugs, sex, and alcohol. In his book Brain Storm, Dr. Dan Siegel helps us understand the natural chemical cocktails and hormonal releases in the brain for those twelve to twenty-four years old. These chemicals are necessary for launching one into adulthood. It can be a dangerous time of life if poor choices and a trail of permanent consequences follow. Perpetual guilt and shame potentially lingers into adulthood stunting the development of one’s natural rhythm of growth.

Risk is not always a dangerous activity to be avoided. The opposite may be true.

For those of us beyond twenty-four with less dopamine (pleasure hormones) releases in the brain, I encourage intentional and healthy risk-taking. It’s good brain hygiene.

Healthy risk-taking is necessary for growth and well-being. Growth sometimes requires doing the opposite of what one would normally do. It may be entering into the unknown, yet not in a sinful way.

Healthy Risk-taking Story

Here’s a story from my pre-adolescent past to illustrate healthy risk-taking.

When I was young my family lived in a subdivision with a community pool. I remember the excitement at the beginning of summer and the smell of chlorine. My bare feet eagerly ran and I heard the whistle of the stern-faced lifeguard pointing and commanding a firm, “walk.” Sugar Daddys were my favorite snack I waited in line for at concessions.

As a fairly good swimmer for my age, the lower diving board was safe . . . and boring after a while. My cousins dared me to go off the high diving board.

I saw how much fun the others were having!

I noticed a boy much smaller than me climbing confidently up the ladder to the high dive and jumping off as if he were born that way.

“I can do that,” I told myself. I intended to make this bold move. My nervous excitement turned into an adrenaline rush that gave me determination.

I started up the first rung . . . then the second. . . the third . . .and by the fourth rung, my whole body shivered with cold, excitement and fear! My heart raced faster with each step I took. I suddenly changed my mind and started to go down backwards. Four or five other divers right behind me shouted an impatient, “hurry up. . . . come on . . . scaredy cat . . . you shouldn’t have gotten in line if you’re not gonna go off.”

My only choice was to keep going.

My heart was beating out of my chest. Goose bumps emerged all over my cold wet body. The rail became more slippery and my legs shook with every step.

Having reached the top rung with my white-knuckled hands grasped tightly to the wet handrail, I felt the grainy board under my feet. A nauseous feeling in my stomach motivated me to keep looking straight ahead. My peripheral vision confirmed how far down the water really was. I walked to the end of the bouncing board and pinched my nose.

My leap of faith was like a slow-motion movie clip.

In an instant, I felt my feet pierce the water surface. Gravity pulled me further under. Emerged by the cool blue water, I quickly swam to the top with a big smile on my face.

I felt proud of myself. I wanted that high dive experience again! I had knowledge I didn’t have moments before. I knew how much fun it would be! I waited in line confidently with the other divers.

  • I learned how to jump backwards off the high dive.
  • I learned how to dive head-first off the high dive.
  • I learned how to flip forward and backward off the high dive.
  • I learned to point my toes and craft my form off the high dive.

The lower diving board became too boring for me.

I experienced feelings of being fully alive and excited! The high dive was fun. I grew in my confidence and skill. My fear turned into courage!

Questions for you

  • What memories of healthy risk-taking behaviors do you have? How has that increased your confidence and skill?
  • What is your low dive experiences now in your life? What is comfortable and boring?
  • What high dive experiences do you imagine in your life now? What confidence and skill might you gain?