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Dagnabbit! How Complaining Rewires Your Brain

Posted by Brian Bigelow on

Dagnabbit! How Complaining Rewires Your Brain

Even the most stoic among us are guilty of it. It’s okay. It might have rained for a week, or your boss chewed you out for something that wasn’t your fault, or you slept through your alarm and didn’t eat breakfast this morning. Maybe you just wanted something to bond over. But the fact remains: we’re all complainers.

While this may seem harmless, or maybe a little annoying at worst, the effects are actually a lot more damaging and far-reaching than most people realize. In fact, due to the way that negativity can rewire the brain and cause physiological changes to the body, it’s no exaggeration to say: complaining can kill. 

Whining Rewires Your Neural Circuitry

Let’s break for a (very) quick lesson in brain function. Synapses are the highways of the brain through which neurons – or brain cells – carry their signals. Messages travel across the brain through electrical charges. The synapses are smart and they want to shorten the neurons’ journey. To this end, synapses can rewire themselves in order to make it easier to convey a very common message.

Steve Parton, author and researcher on human nature, explains, “Through repetition of thought, you’ve brought the pair of synapses that represent your [negative] proclivities closer together…and the thought that wins is the one that has less distance to travel.”1 

This is why the one “Debbie Downer” you know seems to be perpetually stuck in a gloom. Even if she wanted to break out of it, her brain is working against her! So be cognizant of avoiding negative thoughts. Your brain will take notice.

The Mind-Body Link

As is so often the case in health, what’s bad for the mind is also bad for the body. It turns out those negative thoughts are having an impact below your neck as well. Specifically, the hormone cortisol, triggered by stress (which is in turn caused by negative thinking), is released into the body.

Cortisol might be helpful if you’re a sprinter or mixed martial arts fighter. But when you’re not running or fighting for your life, the hormone does more harm than good. Research shows that perpetually elevated cortisol levels can lead to impaired cognitive performance, sleep disruption, elevated blood pressure, lowered immune function, and increased abdominal fat.2 

Complaining in a Crowd is Like…

Jeffrey Lohr, a psychology professor at the University of Arkansas, offers a memorable analogy: “People don’t break wind in elevators more than they have to. Venting anger is an emotional expression. It’s similar to emotional farting in a closed area.”3 Don’t be the one to emotionally stink up your space!

In the same vein, avoid hanging around complainers. A few of the classic varieties include “venters” who would rather complain than find a satisfactory solution, “sympathy seekers” who always have it worse than anyone else, and “dwellers” who can’t drop an issue and refuse to move on.4 

Our brain imitates the same emotion that it is surrounded by. In fact, researchers at Harvard found that, “feelings circulate in patterns analogous to what’s seen from epidemiological models of disease.”5 The same way you’d avoid sharing a drink with your sniffling friend, don’t stop and chat with the office whiner.

A Few Final Tips

Now that you know the fundamentals of avoiding negativity, let’s close with a few “expert level” tips. Dressing positively, in bright colors and outfits that you like, can actually make you feel better about your day. Pleasing your ears, with upbeat music on what might otherwise be a frustrating commute to or from work, is another trick. Finally, remaining aware, and knowing when you are falling into a negative thought pattern is critical to positive thinking.

So think happy thoughts. Your brain and your body will thank you.


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