Did you know that complaining physically rewires your brain for negativity, anxiety, and depression?
Everybody complains once in a while and some research even shows that most people complain once a minute during a typical conversation. For the most part, its completely normal insists Dr. Robin Kowalski, professor of psychology at Clemson University.
However, if your emotional, mental and physical health is important to you then it’s important that you understand the underlying science behind it because, in the long term, complaining isn’t good for you.
How complaining rewires your brain for negativity
We all know at least one perpetually negative person. They are always complaining, nothing ever seems to go in their favor and they’re always the victim of circumstance. How do they become like that?
The first concept you need to understand is that of neuroplasticity. Donald Hebb, an early pioneer of neuroplasticity and neuropsychology, famously said:
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Your brain is designed to be efficient and when you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. By shortening the distance between them this makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future—so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it because it can become an automatic reaction (1). The same can be said of any repetitive thought or action.
Not only does it mean that having negative thoughts makes it easier to have more negative thoughts in the future but being consistently negative can make your default way of thinking negative, affecting your overall outlook on life.
Dr. Michael Merzenich, now recognized as perhaps the world’s most renowned neuroscientist, built on Hebb’s work, proving the relationship between our thoughts (“neurons that fire”) and structural changes in the brain (“wire together.”)
Among Dr. Merzenich’s numerous discoveries, this one may be the most important:
Your experiences, behaviors, thinking, habits, thought patterns, and ways of reacting to the world are inseparable from how your brain wires itself.
Essentially, bad habits will change your brain for the worse and positive habits change your brain for the better.
Consider this quote by Alex Korb, Ph.D., and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time:
“In depression, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the brain. It’s simply that the particular tuning of neural circuits creates the tendency toward a pattern of depression. It has to do with the way the brain deals with stress, planning, habits, decision making and a dozen other things — the dynamic interaction of all those circuits. And once a pattern starts to form, it causes dozens of tiny changes throughout the brain that create a downward spiral.”
The good news is that due to your brain’s neuroplasticity nothing is ever permanent and while complaining can create negative changes in the brain, good habits such as gratitude can create positive changes. While you can go down a downward spiral into negativity, anxiety, and depression you can also turn that around and make it positive.
“Thought changes structure … I saw people rewire their brains with their thoughts, to cure previously incurable obsessions and trauma.” – Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself
In fact, its the neuroplastic nature of your brain that allows you to learn, be, do and have anything you set your mind to. Used to your advantage you can quickly transform your thinking and your life.
Complaining is bad for your brain
While complaining can make it easier for you to have a negative outlook on life the real danger is what it does for your emotional, mental and physical health.
Specifically, when you complain, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol.
” …people who routinely experience chronic stress—particularly acute, even traumatic stress—release the hormone cortisol, which literally eats away, almost like an acid bath, at the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that’s very engaged in visual-spatial memory as well as memory for context and setting,” explains Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a psychologist and Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley (2).
Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially when you consider that it’s one of the primary brain areas destroyed by Alzheimer’s.
Complaining is bad for your health
Cortisol shifts you into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood, and energy away from everything but the systems that are essential to immediate survival. One effect of cortisol, for example, is to raise your blood pressure and blood sugar so that you’ll be prepared to either escape or defend yourself.
All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. By increasing inflammation in the body, it even accelerates aging!
I try to take a proactive approach to keep the stress hormone cortisol low. If you want to read more you can check out 5 Ways To Reduce Stress And Lower YourCortisol Levels.
Stay away from other complainers
Just like it’s wise to avoid second-hand smoke, it’s also wise to stay away from chronic complainers.
According to Steven Parton, an author and student of human nature:
“When we see someone experiencing an emotion (be it anger, sadness, happiness, etc), our brain ‘tries out’ that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through. And it does this by attempting to fire the same synapses in your own brain so that you can attempt to relate to the emotion you’re observing. This is basically empathy. It is how we get the mob mentality… It is our shared bliss at music festivals,” Parton writes. “But it is also your night at the bar with your friends who love love love to constantly bitch.”
“You are the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.” – Jim Rohn
The takeaway lesson is, if you want to strengthen your capacity for positivity and weaken your reflex for gloom, “surround yourself with happy people who rewire your brain towards love.”
How to stop complaining
The goal is really not to stop complaining but rather increase the levels of positivity in your life. The way to do that is to focus on positive parts of your life until your brain rewires itself and you develop a healthier balance of positive to negative thoughts and emotions.
Remember, you can train your brain to do anything, even when it comes to your outlook. The more you work hard to find the positivity in every situation, the more it becomes automatic (3).
A few ways of doing that would be:
1. Catch yourself
Pay closer attention to your thoughts and words. Practice greater awareness in the conversations you have with yourself and others.
The moment you find yourself complaining or indulging in negativity catch yourself and change your focus to finding solutions instead.
I remember Tony Robbins suggested asking the question “What’s great about this situation?”
By asking better questions you can change your focus toward the positive in any situation.
2. Control what you consume
Not so long ago I started watching some YouTube videos on the current conflicts in the world and the potential for world war 3. Within a week my reality started to become negative. Luckily I remember why I don’t read or watch the news and I stopped consuming that kind of media.
There is a saying “Garbage in, garbage out.”
We’re living in a world today where our attention is a priceless asset. Companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Netflix and thousands more are battling for our attention.
If you feed your mind garbage you’ll produce garbage thoughts which will lead to garbage feelings and behavior.
3. Practice gratitude
If complaining physically rewires your brain for negativity, anxiety and depression, then the perfect antidote to that, in my opinion, is to practice gratitude.
There are two primary ways I have practiced gratitude in my life and its the two that I recommend you try as well.
The first method is to keep a gratitude journal. Simply write down 10 things every day that you are grateful for.
The second method is to do a gratitude prayer. Every day I count my blessings in the form of a gratitude prayer. I thank God for all my physical, mental and emotional qualities. I thank God for my health, my wealth and everything in my life. Every morning it takes about 3 minutes to verbally go through everything and remind myself how blessed I truly am.
Just like complaining rewires your brain for negativity, there is overwhelming research that shows how meditation and mindfulness can be powerful tools to combat negativity.
Positive psychology researcher, Barbara Fredrickson, and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina, showed that people who meditate daily display more positive emotions than those who do not.
Following a three month experiment, Fredrickson’s team noted that “people who meditated daily continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.”
If that isn’t an incentive to start then I don’t know what is!
5. Practice stoicism
Read these quotes of stoics like the former Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Greek philosopher Epictetus, or the Roman philosopher Seneca and you’ll find that complaining was something discouraged in stoic philosophy.
One of the definitions of Stoicism is “The endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.”
Try to adopt some of this philosophy into your life and you’ll definitely live a peaceful, stress-free life.
The Summary: How complaining rewires your brain for negativity, anxiety and depression
The brain is a highly efficient organ. Due to its neuroplasticity, physical changes occur based on your habitual thoughts, feelings and behaviors in order to be able to repeat them more easily and efficiently.
Complaining only has negative consequences for your mental and emotional and physical health. Not only does it promote feelings of anxiety and depression but it lends itself to a one having a negative outlook on life.
Chronic complaining and feelings of anger also release the stress hormone cortisol in the body which can damage the brain and body in multiple ways.
The good news is that by adopting positive habits you can also rewire the brain to experience positive emotions and optimum health.