Daniella Whyte

How Complaining Hurts Our Brain and What We Can Do About It (365 Days of Spirited Living — DAY 320)


“Acceptance means no complaining, and happiness means no complaining about the things over which you can do nothing.”
— Wayne Dyer

When things don’t go as we plan, we all have the natural tendency to gripe and complain. For many people, it is a way to let people know how we feel. And for others, it is a way of venting with the expectation of getting a thing or two off of our chest. Really it is a way that contributes to normal functioning at times.

While there are certainly times when we can and should bring up matters of importance or issues that need to be address, complaining unnecessarily in thought, action, or conversation can have immensely negative effects on our brain functioning. Negativity can spread just as quickly and impactfully as positivity can. And it affects our brains more than we think.

British entrepreneur and author of the book, Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life, Trevor Blake, cites the work of several Stanford researchers that shows how complaining affects information processing in the grey matter of our brain. The grey matter contains most of the neuronal cell bodies and includes that part of the brain that controls our muscle activity, perception, memory, emotions, speech, and self-control.

Not only that, Blake revealed that complaining also decreases the neurons in a major part of our brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus controls the formation of memory as well as critical thought and spatial navigation. When neurons in this part of our brain are gradually peeled away, we lose some of that ability to mentally control or connect the positive information or events even when everything is not going so nice.

Complaining at times makes us feel good, or at least temporarily causes us to feel better about the immediate situation. And this is where the biological process comes into play. The more we complain, the less neurons we have in our brain with which to consider new information that may be opposite of what we are complaining about. The more the neurons in our brain decrease, the easier it is to complain without even thinking about it.

So whether you are the one complaining or you hang around negative friends, family members, or colleagues, there are some ways you can decrease this habit and increase your well-being:

1. Practice self-awareness.

Be intentionally conscious of when complaining thoughts are creeping into your mind or even when you are verbally venting your frustrations. The old sayings, “Think before you speak” and “Look before you leap” are especially effective here. Instead of focusing on the source of the complaint, shift your cognitive processes to something more positive or productive. Of course, no habit can be broken all at once and complaining is no different. But if you are aware of what you are thinking, then you can help yourself distract away from complaining and focus on better thoughts.

The same goes for being aware of negative people. People who complain about their career, their family, their life or anything else just for the sake of complaining can ruin your well-being and your physical health. One reason is because all that negative intake weighs down the brain, causing it to crash, and not function at maximum capacity.

2. Talk to the right people.

Most of the time, we complain to the same people — our best friend, our closest co-worker, our spouse. And when we do this, we’re rarely looking for a possible solution to the issue we’re complaining about. Life is riddled with problems and the best thing we can do is look for solutions.

Positive well-being is significantly increased when we productively settle an issue instead of unproductively complaining about. Many times, a solution can be found by going to the right people who can actually take on the problem and handle it successfully.

3. Get grateful.

When we are constantly complaining especially when it is doing nothing to bring change or solve the matter we’re complaining about, we are actually telling our brains that it is okay to consistently look for the negative in every situation or the bad in every person. Of course, always looking at the dark side will tear apart your relationships in every aspect.

Looking for the good (not to the neglect of bad behavior that should be changed) allows us to always have something for which we can be grateful. For example, the presentation may not have been received as enthusiastically as we would have liked, but we can be thankful for the experience. You can be grateful at any time, in any situation, for anyone if you train your brain to do so.

“Complaining does not work as a strategy. We all have finite time and energy. Any time we spend whining is unlikely to help us achieve our goals. And it won’t make us happier.”
— Randy Pausch


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