How complaining rewires your brain for negativity

Life can be extremely stressful. We face constant day-to-day challenges that add layers of stress to living life in such an already fast-paced and competitive world.

So how do we usually cope?

Our first instinct is to complain. Somehow it has become a natural reaction to us. We gripe, groan, vent, and bemoan the unfairness of it all.

You probably don’t go a day without at least complaining a few times. In fact, research shows that during an average conversation, we complain to each other at least once every minute.

Socially, we also like to complain because it’s an easy way to relate to one another.

“Nothing unites people more strongly than a common dislike. The easiest way to build friendship and communicate is through something negative,” saysThree Simple Steps author Trevor Blake.

Naturally, we believe that it helps. Complaining, to us, is just another way to release stress. Or so we thought.

Complaining is harmful to your brain health

complaining is bad for you

It’s actually the opposite. According to research from Stanford University, when you complain, your brain releases stress hormones that damage your neural connections. Specifically, complaining affects your brain’s problem-solving and other cognitive functions.

Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0 says:

“Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you.

“And here’s the kicker: complaining damages other areas of your brain as well. Research from Stanford University has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus—an area of the brain that’s 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.”

And guess what, the same thing happens when you hear someone else groan, moan or complain. It’s exactly like inhaling second-hand smoke.

So it doesn’t really matter if you’re the one complaining or listening, it causes damage either way.

Complaining can be healthy if  done right

Wait, so if complaining is bad for us, does that mean we have to keep it to ourselves?

Actually, a separate study shows that bottling up emotions can shorten your lifespan. And in this case, venting allows you to release those negative emotions.

So what should you do, really?

There could be a middle ground. Here are a few tips to complain without further stressing your self out.

1. Complain intelligently

complaining is bad for your health

The first thing you can do is complain with a purpose. Take a second and think about it more. Don’t do it unless you have a solution in mind. It’s important that you first know what you want.

Also, this allows the person you complaining to, to help you more effectively. It’s a win-win.

Complaining is only unhealthy when it’s counter-productive.

When it’s done right, it can even be good for you.

According to licensed marriage and family therapist Shadeen Francis:

“Complaining for the purpose of resolving a concern or grievance is helpful for mental health, as it is a way to channel your needs into actionable outcomes. This can lead to positive experiences like self-awareness (mindfulness) and happiness.”

2. Keep track of your complaints and how often you say them

how to complain

You might not notice it, but you could sometimes complain about the same thing over and over again.

A study published in the Journal of Social Psychology examined how mindfulness, happiness, and expressions of annoyance affect each other.

They found that those who complained, hoping for results were happier than those who didn’t. This is because happier people know how to modulate their complaints, when to complain, and to whom.

Psychology professor Robin Kowalski says:

“That’s part of the strategic nature of complaining. It’s all about making the best choice, knowing when to complain and to whom.”

Change can only start after awareness.

Keep track of your complaints. And if you find yourself always complaining about one particular thing, do something to fix it.

3. Consider who you’re complaining to


You call customer support and end up raising your voice to someone who didn’t actually cause your problem. It doesn’t help the situation.

Complaining to loved ones is particularly a different ball game. In this case, you should always practice caution.

According to Bowdoin College psychology professor Barbara Held:

“It’s important to learn how to tell friends and family when you’re upset. If you don’t, you end up alone in your pain.”

Be careful, or you’ll end up alienating the most important people in your life.

4. Avoid chronic complainers

complaining is bad for your health

As mentioned above, the negative effects of complaining can also come from hearing them from other people.

According to author Steven Parton:

“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. It is how we get the mob mentality…. It is our shared bliss at music festivals.

But it is also your night at the bar with your friends who love love love to constantly bitch.”

There’s no shame in cutting off people that bring negativity to your life. And if you find yourself being on the other end of a complaint, bring some positivity to it rather than replying with another complaint.

5. Complain on social media properly

how to complain

This is another reason why social media can be quite toxic. It’s a place people vent on a lot.

In truth, venting on social media can be a good thing as you might find more people or businesses to help you more effectively. Like if your package didn’t arrive on time and you complain about the postal service’s Facebook page.

But one study published in the Behavior Research Methods explains that angry rants on social media can come back and affect you sooner than you think.

Researchers discovered that positive chats resonate only for a few seconds. However, negative chat persists for many minutes.

Remember, it’s wrong if you’re simply letting your temper run and use social media to tell unassuming people your whole business. Again, it’s counter-productive and a waste of time.

6. Add a positive “but” to your complaint

complaining is bad for your health

According to psychologist Eric Berne, healthy complaining isn’t about finding solutions, but to connect.

He says here’s what people do wrong:

“First, one person states a problem. Next, another person responds by offering suggestions on how to solve it. Then the first says, ‘Yes, but…’ and proceeds to shoot down the solutions offered.”

Sometimes we get caught up in ourselves that we constantly complain instead of being grateful for what we have.

When you’re stressed about something and find yourself getting annoyed, center yourself with this simple technique.

7. Learn to let it go

complaining is bad for you

Did you know that complaining is bad for your body?

Parton explains:

“When your brain is firing off these synapses of anger, you’re weakening your immune system; you’re raising your blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes, and a plethora of other negative ailments.”

Complaining won’t cause you to have a heart attack. But enough of it and it will certainly lead to something bad.

8. Complain with the intent to solve

science says complaining is bad

Here’s a secret:

Mindset is everything.

Yes, even when it comes to complaining.

It makes a world of a difference when you complain while having a positive mindset.

According to Francis:

“It makes a difference whether you are approaching from unfiltered negativity or if you have a positive overall outlook and are making a specific complaint about an experience that is troubling you.

“Complaining without potential solutions or the intention of positive outcome fuels further negativity, and is off-putting to those you are complaining to.”

So the solution?

Don’t carry that toxicity around. You can’t control every outcome, but you can control your reaction.

You’ve taken time to complain in a healthy way. Sometimes things just don’t go as planned.

Stop dwelling on your problem. If it’s not serving you, let it go.

Notable replies

  1. I believe there are parts of the world, under some political or religious systems, where complaining is very bad for the health of the complainer. Fortunately, other parts of the world allow the individual to be proactive in their attempts to address their problems. Sometimes a person’s problems are self-generated and they do not see that they are the cause of their problems. Perhaps that is what makes us human? I see the article is educating people on more effective complaining. I think some advice on how to recognize the source of a problem may be more rewarding. Most problems are homegrown, it is not the guy 5 cubes over that got you a poor performance review. It is not the house down the street that has let ants into your pantry. Walt Kelly said it so well:

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Genefe Navilon

Genefe Navilon

Genefe Navilon is a writer, poet, and blogger. She graduated with a degree in Mass Communications at the University of San Jose Recoletos. Her poetry blog, Letters To The Sea, currently has 18,000 followers. Her work has been published in different websites and poetry book anthologies. She divides her time between traveling, writing, and working on her debut poetry book.


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