Complaining is as human as pressing the snooze button, but its ramifications may be more toxic than you think. For many of us, we see complaining as a way to vent or unleash pent-up frustration. But studies are illustrating that the power of the act can be quite destructive, going as far to rewire the brain to think more negatively.
Most psychologists agree that venting causes more damage than it does good. According to Fast Company, a 2013 study “Anger on the Internet” revealed that users of rant sites are more prone to angry outbursts and more likely to participate in verbal and physical fights. In other words, venting is more likely to throw fire to the flame than it is to calm someone down.
The same goes for complaining. While it may seem as though we are innocently letting off some steam, complaining trains our brain into thinking more negative thoughts. A recent article on Inc.com discusses some of the research conducted by Steve Parton, an author and student of human nature. Parton, whose article appeared on Psych Pedia, discusses three ways on how complaining can harm our health.
For one, negativity begets negativity. Parton explains this using the phrase “synapses that fire together, wire together,” which essentially means that our brains can become accustomed to thinking in certain mindsets. From Psych Pedia:
Throughout your brain there is a collection of synapses separated by empty space called the synaptic cleft. Whenever you have a thought, one synapse shoots a chemical across the cleft to another synapse, thus building a bridge over which an electric signal can cross, carrying along its charge the relevant information you’re thinking about
But once these electrical charges are triggered, the synapses grow closer together to help lessen the distance that the electrical charge has to travel. Our brain is adapting to what it believes to be our preferred method of thinking. Psych Pedia continues:
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. Therefore, your first mystical scientific evidence: your thoughts reshape your brain, and thus are changing a physical construct of reality.
In other words, when we complain, we’re training our brain to start seeing the world through a more negative perspective. This makes it harder and harder to draw ourselves out of the occasional pit of despair.
On the plus side, the same thing happens when we think positive thoughts. Many of us may have gotten into a negative mindset early on, and are now stuck in the habit of destructive self-talk and complaining. But by actively trying to focus on the positive aspects of a situation, we’re able to start shifting out default state to one of optimism and appreciation.
Who you spend your time with also makes a difference. Hanging out with negative people can be just as destructive as having your own negative thoughts. This is because our brain is a natural empathizer; it tries to replicate the emotions of those around us by firing similar synapses. Parton describes it as “the mob mentality” or “shared bliss at music festival.” If we spend our time with friends who tend to dwell on the darkness, our minds start to replicate a similar behavior. Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to ditch your pals who might be going through some hard times. Rather, you can be a light their lives, using your contagious positive energy to help bring them into a more uplifted state of being. Choosing positive thoughts requires work and resilience.
Negativity can take a toll on your physical health, as well. According to the University of Minnesota, persistent reactions to stress can damage the immune system and increase one’s risk of high blood pressure. High blood pressure is no joke, as it can lead to a multitude of health issues, including heart problems, stroke, kidney damage, vision loss, erectile dysfunction, memory loss, and angina.
Parton blames this on cortisol, the stress hormone that is released to fear and stress in fight-or-flight situations. When we’re in a constant state of worry, cortisol is more likely to be released in unnecessary situations.
Optimism isn’t always easy, especially if you’ve already wired your brain to develop negative patterns. But compare it to going to the gym; the more time you dedicate to strengthening your body, the more likely you are to see results. By committing time and effort to positive thinking, we are literally capable of changing the way our brain operates. We shift our reality simply by taking control of our perspective.
“If you are mindful to the lessons of the failures, there is no reason that you can’t make the default of every day better than the one before it,” Parton says. “Do something new every day, learn its lesson, choose love over fear, and make every day better than the last.”
Amanda Kohr is a 25-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel. She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet at amandakohr.com and through Instagram.