The Crazy Way Complaining Alters Your Brain

Last Update: May 11, 2021

I’m sitting at my favorite local diner on a warm and sunny Saturday in February, with my boyfriend across from me—so many things to be grateful for. Only, I’m starving. One-by-one, I watch every table around get served their burgers and sundaes—nada for us. Then, the waitress drops the bomb that she forgot to put our order in.

All of a sudden, anger surges through me—literally. According to basic neuroscience, each thought triggers the brain to shoot neurotransmitters across synapses, where signals pass from one nerve cell to another. And every time a certain type of thought occurs, the brain allows the synapses associated with that thought to grow closer together to make it easier for them to communicate. Translation: The more often a person engages a negative thought, the easier it is for it to occur regularly, since it has a shorter distance to travel in order to be processed. So frequent complaintive behavior (read: lamenting over “Mondays” week after week) can hardwire the brain for chronic negativity.

Meanwhile, at the soda shop, my reality is that I’m hungry and frustrated that this mishap cuts into my plans. In the moment, I don’t want to let that go, so I vent. To my boyfriend, by the way, not the smiling waitress. And the more I stew in it, the worse I feel. The only thing that actually snaps me out of it? My boyfriend points out that I can choose to frame the day as a whole in a positive light, despite this one annoying moment.

He’s right. All too often, we tend to get caught up in the reasoning that venting is healthy and cathartic. While yes, it can be, doing it compulsively can also sabotage our brains and our health. Complaining is a manifestation of helplessness and frustration—an offshoot of anger, which has been shown to cause a greater risk of heart disease, hypertension, and stroke. Negative emotions boil down to anxiety and stress, which can impair the immune system for hours at a time, upset hormonal balance, and make us susceptible to deadly conditions. And complaining can be contagious. Because humans naturally feel empathy, when we’re mid-rant, the same neurological activity noted above may occur in the brains of the people around us.

But we don’t have to be robots with no emotions! Feel your feelings—which a lot of times, you can actually do without saying a word—but then let them go so they don’t end up ruling your brain.

Flipping the switch to cut down on complaining just takes some practice. Try this experiment. Whenever you feel a negative comment on the tip of your tongue, stop and ask yourself these three questions before you react.

Will speaking up solve this issue?

If the answer is yes to this question—say, if a restaurant really messed up your order and you want it fixed—then by all means, take positive action and speak up. Nicely, if possible. But this is all about taking a solution-oriented approach to the little injustices we experience in day-to-day life. We’ll never be able to change the weather, traffic, Wi-Fi speed, and in many cases, other people’s opinions and behaviors, so we can save a lot of time and grief by just letting that stuff go. (What you can control? Your own reactions to all those things.)

Does the other person need to know?

If you’d rather address your restaurant grievances to the person next to you, who can’t do a thing, then consider zipping your lips. That’s just considerate. Since we know that our words can have an influence on other people’s brain chemistry, that’s a good reason to be more mindful of what we say and how it affects others. Sure, some bonds are built on the comradery of complaining, but that doesn’t have to be the basis of all relationships! Consider communicating positivity more often than negativity and it may change the dynamics between you and others—in a good way.

Is there something positive to be said instead?

Most of the time, the answer to this last question will be yes. Often all it takes to get out of a black hole of displeasure is to consciously reframe your thinking. If you can’t help the words from coming out of your mouth, then at least think about how you can follow it up on a positive note. Not saying you need to fake the funk, but when you start to feel all worked up about the presidential candidates, remember that you get a vote in it. How cool is that?

Illustration by Foley Wu

This article is related to:

Brain Health, Educational, Living

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.

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