Complaining can be much worse for you than you thought, according to neuroscience.
We tend to feel a lot better once we’ve had a good moan. Getting things off our chests seems to relieve a burden or two, and who hasn’t heard of the old adage ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’?
But research has shown that expressing negativity is not such a good idea. Not only does complaining have consequences for your own physical and mental wellbeing, but it affects the mood of others, making them more likely to be negative as well.
Over on Curious Apes (1), writer Steven Parton describes how he came to realise that thinking negative thoughts were not only detrimental but could also prove to be fatal.
First up, he explains how the brain works:
1. “Synapses that fire together wire together.”
In neuroscience, students are taught about neurons in the brain, the gap between them (synapses) and how they transmit signals.
Parton states: “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.”
“Here’s the kicker,” he continues. “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.”
2. The Shortest Path Wins the Race
So thinking about that again, if you continually have negative thoughts, those synapses associated with those negative thoughts will grow even more.
This makes it easier to have those negative thoughts. Gradually you will become a more negative person over time and find it harder to find the positive in life.
Parton explains how the closer synapses will always triumph over ones that are further away: “Through repetition of thought, you’ve brought the pair of synapses that represent your [negative] proclivities closer and closer together, and when the moment arises for you to form a thought… the thought that wins is the one that has less distance to travel, the one that will create a bridge between synapses fastest.”
3. Negativity breeds Negativity
It is not just our own thoughts that can be affected by negative emotions. Surrounding ourselves with others who are feeling angry or stressful can also affect us.
Think about a crowd turning from a peaceful protest to an aggressive mob in seconds. Or a group of ladies bitching about an absent friend. It is all too easy to get caught up in the moment.
Why is it so much harder to take a stand against the crowd?
Parton explains why: “When we see someone experiencing an emotion (be it anger, sadness, happiness, etc), our brain “tries out” that same emotion to imagine what the other person is going through. And it does this by attempting to fire the same synapses in your own brain so that you can attempt to relate to the emotion you’re observing. This is basically empathy.”
But being constantly around negative or angry people is making your brain try to experience these emotions. Your brain is learning to fire those neurons across ‘negative’ synapses and every day you spend with pessimistic people, those synaptic gaps are closing in.
If you want to think happy thoughts and become a more optimistic person, stop complaining and spend time with carefree and loving people (2).
Negativity Affects the Body and the Mind
We can see why all this negativity can have an adverse effect on your mental health, but why would it affect your physical well-being? According to Parton, it’s all down to the hormone cortisol (3), which is released when we are under stress.
Cortisol is released by the body as part of the ‘fight or fight’ response by the adrenal glands. If it is used up it is a good thing as it prepares the body for that extra burst of energy required. However, if it is not used, it is stored in the blood and this is where it causes a problem. Excess cortisol in the body increases the risk of heart disease, higher blood pressure, lower immune function and bone density, increased weight gain, and much more.
So how should you deal with negative or anger issues? Jeffrey Lohr (4), a psychology professor at the University of Arkansas, suggests reacting assertively rather than in an aggressive manner.
Here is what else you can do instead of complaining:
1. Take a Timeout
Walk away, take a deep breath and allow yourself to calm down. Research has shown that anger can be diffused by removing yourself from the source of frustration.
2. Express Yourself Effectively
Swap anger management lessons for effective communication skills. Avoiding confrontational language can go a long way to ease potentially volatile situations.
3. Write it All Down
I’ve used this technique myself. Instead of venting at the actual person, get it all off your chest and out of your mind by writing and complaining in a letter you will never send.
“Make sure that you identify that you’re feeling anger rather than other negative emotions like sadness and depression,” says Lohr. “Anger is in no way shape or form like sadness, and depression is anger turned inward. Both sadness and depression are improved by expressing your feelings, getting them validated, and then getting them fixed.”