Did you know that complaining is rewiring your brain and damaging your health?!
Complaining is referred to as expressing discontent or resentment. While we may think we are just “venting”, in reality, complaining has significant impacts on our brains and our happiness.
We all complain: the average person complains anywhere between 15 and 30 times a day.
If you asked yourself how many times you complained today, it’s probably innumerable. We don’t generally complain to torture others with negativity, rather, by getting our emotions out, we justify that we feel better.
However there are shocking flaws in this reasoning. Not only does complaining tend to not make us feel better, but also it catches on and makes our listeners feel worse.
Complaining is bad for our mood and the mood of those around us listening, but that’s not all that’s wrong with complaining. It’s also bad for your brain and health.
How Does Complaining affect the Brain?
Research from Stanford University has also found that complaining reduces the size of our hippocampus, which, is responsible for memory and problem solving. The study found that engaging in complaining or simply hearing someone complain for more than 30 minutes could physically damage our brains.
Just like human beings in general, our brains generally don’t want to work any harder than they absolutely have to. When we repeat certain behaviours – like complaining – our neurons branch out to one another to make information more easily transferred.
The more frequently you complain, you increase your likelihood of thinking negative thoughts later. In neuroscience, the phrase “synapses that fire together wire together” is used to explain this concept.
Within the brain there are a constellation of synaptic clefts between synapses. Every time you have a thought, one synapse sends a chemical signal across the synaptic cleft to another synapse. Over time, ‘bridges’ are built, for which electric signals can travel. These electrical signals carry the relevant information you’re thinking about with their charge.
Every time this electrical charge is triggered, the synapses grow closer together in order to decrease the distance the electrical charge has to cross … The brain is rewiring its own circuitry, physically changing itself, to make it easier and more likely that the proper synapses will share the chemical link and thus spark together–in essence, making it easier for the thought to trigger.”
Since the shortest distance between synapses wins the race, it’s also just as possible for positive circuits to be developed to experience positive thoughts more frequently than negative ones.
So, once you have a thought it is much easier for you to have that thought again – which isn’t great news for pessimists! Not only are you more likely to have negative thoughts, but you’re more likely to randomly experience negative thoughts going about your daily business.
It appears who we hang out with also makes a difference.
Hanging out with people who frequently complain can be just as destructive as complaining yourself. This is because your brain rewires itself in much the same way. Our brains are wired to imagine what others are experiencing, so when we see someone experiencing anger or sadness, our brains try it out to enhance our understanding of what they are experiencing. The same mechanism of firing synapses applies – our brains attempt to fire the same synapses to enable us to empathise with others. This isn’t to say we should ditch our friends who could be going through a difficult time, rather, knowing our energy is contagious, can choose positivity to uplift them.
Why is Complaining Bad for your Health?
Not only is complaining terrible for your brain, it is also bad for your health.
When we complain, the hormone cortisol is released into the body, which is also responsible for our fight-or-flight response. When our fight-or-flight response is activated, our brain redirects blood, oxygen and energy away from non-essential systems. Repeated complaining results in cortisol being released in higher levels, putting us more at risk of developing heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and strokes.
One study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that on average, optimists tend to live longer than pessimists. Optimists were found to have a 55% lower risk of death across all causes and were 23% less likely to die of heart disease.
Make a Conscious Choice
Before we complain, we have a choice. Sure, the situation may suck. But we can choose to learn and focus on how the situation can better us, grow us, make us better people.
We can use the moment to make space for strength to bring us closer to happiness. A bad break up for example, doesn’t have to be the end of your world as you know it. It can be an opportunity to stop and reflect on what things you value and what you don’t like, or it can highlight red flags so you can avoid them in the future.
Author: Tara Pisano, BA (Psych) (Hons), M Psych.
Tara Pisano is a Brisbane psychologist with a special interest in early intervention in adolescents and young adults, as this is when three quarters of mental health conditions emerge. In her practice, she draws on a range of evidence-based therapies such as CBT, DBT, IPT, ACT and Motivational Interviewing, to promote recovery and positive outcomes.
To make an appointment with Tara Pisano, try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
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