How Complaining Affects the Brain and General Health
Stop Complaining, It's Bad for Your Brain (and How to Cope)
In the last few years, as I've committed myself more deeply to practicing yoga and embracing its philosophy, I've cultivated habits that make me a calmer, less emotionally volatile person. Among those habits that I've worked to break is complaining.
I grew up in a house where complaining was common. Though this habit bothered me, I found myself reacting the same way when I was out of my element—especially when some incident forced me out of my comfort zone (such as car issues). I think age and life experience helped me outgrow these reactions, but it was not without effort. I don't always succeed, but I've made great progress. Consider these two scenarios:
Last year, the battery in my car died, unbeknownst to me. I had turned on my flashers while getting out of the car one night. As a result, my car alarm started going off in the morning and nothing I tried made it stop. I had a busy morning ahead of me, and this car issue quickly sullied my mood. I called my boyfriend a few times, desperate for help. He was en route to a bike race in North Carolina so there was obviously nothing he could do for me. The first time I called for help. I tried his suggestions, they didn't work, so I called back to complain that it was still going off (not to yell at him but just to complain about my present situation). Meanwhile, my day wasn't getting any less busy, the car alarm was still going off, and I was right where I started. Eventually I figured out how to remove the fuse connected to the alarm, called AAA, and got a jump-start. Problem solved—probably an hour later than it would have been if I had started by thinking not whining.
Fast-forward several months: Someone sideswiped my car while it was parked in front of my apartment building, taking off the driver's side mirror. I awoke early and found it, and though I wasn't happy, I didn't complain and didn't get stressed. I called some repair shops and then forgot about it. The problem was no big deal, it wasn't pricey to fix, and even though it was a hassle to pay money for something I didn't do and deal with someone else's mistake, I knew complaining would do no good. As a result, it had much less of an effect on my day than the other incident had.
With a different approach, an unpleasant situation can seem be a tiny ripple in your life rather than a tidal wave. Cultivating patience takes practice, and you can't learn it when life is peachy keen. Thus rough patches become opportunities to practice.
I focus on taking a positive approach to anything that comes out of my mouth, and if I do complain, I try to do it with perspective. In fact, when we're having a rough day, Coach Nicole and I often say or type "first world problems," as a way to show that we're able to laugh at the trivial nature of our problems. (Thank goodness we work with people who keep complaining in check!)
SparkGuy recently sent us this article, which says that complaining is bad for your brain in multiple ways. And it's not just the complainers who suffer. It's the listeners, too.
When we're repeatedly exposed to negativity in real life or on TV, we're more likely to be negative ourselves. And it actually makes your brain "mushy," say researchers.
Wow. That's will make me think twice about whining when life hands me a lemon.
The article offers three tips for dealing with complainers, and I'll share my own coping mechanisms. (And I should note, for me there's a difference in helping someone deal with a difficult life event and dealing with someone who complains about everything all the time. I only use these tactics when dealing with the latter. With the former, I employ compassion and good listening skills.)
I don't engage. When dealing with a perpetual complainer, I become a bad listener. I say something vague like "oh, that's too bad," then I change the subject. Or I ask a question about something I know (s)he likes as a way to focus on a positive topic.
I filter out the negative. I have a loved one who constantly complains on the phone to me, and I flat-out don't listen. I pretend I am, and I focus on breathing, say "uh-huh" and let her vent. I don't say anything to encourage, and I let the negativity pass right through me without letting it affect me.
I get rid of the complainers. Remember when I wrote about decluttering my life in the physical and emotional sense? As part of simplifying my life and saying no more often, I also shrunk my social circle—and that includes on social media. I "hid" and (gasp!) defriended people who either complained all the time or overshared online. I shouldn't know the intimate details of my high school chemistry lab partner's life. If by chance I do see that person in real life again, there will be nothing to say, no surprise after years apart—Facebook will have spoiled the moment! Go ahead and hide the worst offenders from your feed or unfollow them on Twitter. Most people don't notice!
As I continue to cultivate my own habit of patience, I remember a quote from my go-to motivator and spiritual teacher, Pema Chodron: "Whichever of the two occurs, be patient—Whatever happens in your life, joyful or painful, do not be swept away by reactivity. Be patient with yourself and don't lose your sense of perspective." There's a difference between doing nothing and not reacting. I focus on taking action without reacting, which allows me to stay patient while coping with an unpleasant situation.
Don't react. Be patient. Be kind to yourself and others. And if you do need to vent, preface it with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. It helps put everything in perspective.
Video: How Complaining Rewires The Brain: What You Think, You Become | Science of Behavior
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