Complaining could be rewiring your brain for negativity. Here’s how to turn your bad habit into something constructive
While we all love to vent our thoughts, constant complaining shrinks the part of the brain critical to problem solving and intelligent thought. Experts say there are simple things you can do to control your negative commentary
Complaining, much like binge drinking, feels good at the time, especially after one of those stressful days. But we might want to rethink this knee-jerk reaction to vent. Recent reports from the mind-health field show that complaining can actually alter our brain.
Incessant complaining may also leave you with a diminished social life. Many mental health experts say this tendency turns people into “energy vampires”.
Robert, who does not wish to use his surname, works in the finance industry in Hong Kong. It wasn’t until a friend pointed out the he was being a total downer that Robert got help. “One of my friends once described me as morose,” Robert says. “That label not only stuck, it really sunk in.”
“I found myself in a rut and it was much easier to accept gloom as the norm rather than do anything about it.”
It’s lucky he did eventually get help. Incessant moaning and groaning (or even simple ruminating) about everyday frustrations – flaky friends, demanding family, lazy colleagues, bad drivers, the MTR at peak hour, rain, humidity, rude waiters, rent increases, long flights with screaming babies, your mean boss, tourists hogging the pavement taking selfies – actually can rewire our brain for negativity.
According to US-based psychologist Travis Bradberry, who is an expert in emotional intelligence, perpetual complaining shrinks the hippocampus, an area of the brain critical to problem solving and intelligent thought.
“Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially when you consider that it’s one of the primary brain areas destroyed by Alzheimer’s [disease],” Bradberry says on the site he founded, TalentSmart.com, which provides emotional intelligence tests.
Constant complaining – to yourself or others – becomes the brain’s default and leads to a miserable existence. Our neurons branch out to each other when behaviour is repeated. More complaining makes it easier to complain more. While you may not realise you have rewired your brain to complain, others will. You may feel down, and despite having vented all afternoon, you don’t feel better for it.
Eventually, the bonds between neurons become more permanent. Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb put it into words when he coined the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together”.
However, some psychologists do question the research presented by mind-health gurus such as Bradberry, saying that complaining is good for you.
The pro-complainers say that if we don’t rant, we bottle things up, which makes us sick, physically and mentally. And is there anyone more annoying than the almost inhuman optimist, who thinks a 25-hour airport delay is an opportunity to appreciate jet engineering wonders?
No matter which camp you side with, one thing is for sure: complaining is something most of us do. When the need does arise, we must weigh up whether it’s worth focusing on, then learn how to control it, or – if it has to be voiced – do it better.
Hong Kong-based clinical hypnotherapist Georgina Delamain is an accredited psychotherapist, teacher and counsellor who’s helped patients of all ages for 20 years.
“The thing about complaining is that it’s the same as being positive,” Delamain says. “It becomes a habit.”
Learning how to change your default to complain negatively is like going to the gym, she says. You’re mentally training yourself. And there are many easy exercises you can do to help avoid the constant negative thoughts that lead to complaining.
Negative experiences are stored in an area of the brain called the amygdala, also responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight response, she says. Let’s say you’re stuck in traffic. If you have not trained your brain to react accordingly, your annoyance could fire your amygdala to the point where it thinks you are under serious threat from a bloodthirsty beast. Queue road rage.
“Once you have trained your mind to a more positive mindset,” Delamain says, “this increases hormones like serotonin, and when that happens, you can deal with life much better.”
“It’s basically about getting your brain back in balance. It is not about being constantly upbeat … but remember, your primitive mind [that is, the one that evolved to help us survive beastly attacks] is like a toddler. You can distract it.”
Delamain has seen this happen so many times she is convinced it’s the best way to get the life you want, as opposed to simply complaining about the one you have.
Robert, who used to complain constantly, has seen the benefits of taking charge of his thoughts over the past seven months, thanks to hypnotherapy.
“I sleep better, don’t lose my temper so quickly, find work less of a drag and no longer moan as much,” he says. “This means I get on better with other people [colleagues] and tend to look for the good things, rather than settle with the mundane.
“I’m not perfect, but considering I started out as a morose three out of 10 on the happiness scale, I’m now a pretty constant 6, who is heading for a 7.”
Delamain concludes that if you feel the need to complain for the sake of it, take a deep breath, distract yourself with a walk to the water cooler, meditate or exercise. This is accessing your logical mind.
“It will pass. And it takes only 28 days to break a habit,” she says.
How to complain constructively
“If I’m not complaining, I’m not having a good time,” said film director Martin Scorsese.
He may have been joking, but complaining incessantly is believed to rewire our brains for negativity. Of course there are times when we need to complain, but there is a difference between healthy and unhealthy complaining.
Here are some tips from hypnotherapist and psychotherapist Georgina Delamain and emotional intelligence expert Travis Bradberry on how to complain more constructively.
– Delay the urge to complain by breathing deeply or drinking a glass of water. Ask yourself, is there a clear and/or positive outcome that will result from complaining? Walk to the water cooler, or clear your desk.
– Be self-aware. If you have ranted, are you feeling better afterwards? Or worse? Check in with yourself and take that as a guide.
– Practice gratitude daily.
– Practice relaxation (meditation, jogging, swimming, walking, golf, massage and so on).
– Eat healthily.
– See a therapist.
– Have a clear purpose. Know your desired outcome.
– Start with something positive. For example, before launching into a complaint about poor customer service, you could say something like, “I’ve been a customer for a very long time and have always been thrilled with your service …”
– Be specific. That is, don’t dredge up minor annoyances from 20 years ago.
– End on a positive. Say something like: “I’d like to work this out so we can keep our relationship intact.”