Constant Complaining Can Alter Your Brain
Intuitively, it is easy to grasp how the sort of stress and negativity brought about by constant complaining can change your mood for the worse. That’s not to mention that nobody likes a chronic complainer–the sort of person who seems bent on constantly expressing their woes, blaming the world for their problems, and venting all the ways the people around them don’t measure up.
While your mood and relationships may suffer for all your complaints, new research has shown that the behavior actually physically alters your brain, too.
Steven Parton of Psych Pedia has studied what science has to say about the physical and chemical effects that complaining has on your brain.
A popular phrase in undergraduate Psychology 101 is that “synapses that fire together wire together”. The principle is that throughout your brain, there are a collection of empty spaces between each of your neurons called “synapses”. Your neurons are constantly shooting messages to one another across these synapses. For any thought you have, a chemical signal is released from one synapse to another. This builds a bridge for electrical signals to cross–signals that carry the information you are trying to convey.
The brain is an elegant and efficient organ, constantly changing in response to your thoughts and behavior. Every time a new bridge is built and an electrical charge is activated, the synapses grow closer. This is to decrease the time it takes for signals to reach their destination. As the brain rewires its own circuitry, it makes it physically easier to have the same thoughts over and over again. This is how learning occurs, how people learn to spot patterns, and how people become trapped in repetitive thinking.
Therein lies the trick: in constant complaining, you are actually conditioning your brain to handle those sorts of thoughts quickly and efficiently. Before long, you’ve primed your brain to default to negative thinking simply because it is easy and familiar.
Constant Complaining is Altering Your Brain
Negativity is Contagious
The effects of complaining and negative-thinking are not isolated to the person having the thoughts or engaging in the behavior–the disadvantages spread right over to those around them, too.
A “mirror neuron” is a fascinating and mysterious type of neuron that fires whenever an animal acts and whenever the animal sees the same action being performed by another. Thus, mirror neurons mimic, or “mirror” another’s behavior, as though the observer themselves was completing the action. While the exact function of the mirror neuron is still the subject of much speculation, research has shown that they are crucial for learning new skills, understanding the actions of other people, and the human capacity for empathy.
Mirror Neurons – Positive or Negative?
Mirror neurons tend to be very good at their jobs, so unless you happen to be a sociopath or autistic, chances are when you see people engage in complaining or other negative behavior, your brain is going to fire away as if you yourself were the negative one.
“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,” Parson writes. “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….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.”
Once in a while, a good bitch-fest is not so bad. Like anything else, moderation is key. Like anything else, too much is bad for you. The trouble is when you surround yourself with negativity, you train your brain to expect and repeat more of the same. Your mirror neurons react as though you are complaining. Over time, your synapses respond by growing closer and closer together in order to make the connection, the thought, easier to handle. This is an example of a time where learning works against us.
Stress is Deadly
A negative mind is a fertile breeding ground for stress, and stress, as Parson says, “is public health enemy number one.” Constant complaining only leads to stress for yourself and those around you, and too much stress is highly connected to many dangers, including:
- Weakened immune system and bone density
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes
- Interference with learning and memory
Not to mention the increased risk of depression, mental illness, and a lower life expectancy.
Children, teenagers, and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of stress.
The Good News
The brain is resilient, but it is also adaptable. It is not impervious to the effects of training. The same way a person can condition their brain to complain and elevate stress, they can condition themselves with positive thinking and enjoy all the benefits it has to offer.
By being mindful of your thoughts, by expressing gratitude and appreciation for those around you, by learning to see what is offered rather than what is missing, we can teach ourselves to engage with the world in a new and positive way.
Next time you hear yourself voicing a complaint, try to catch yourself in the act. Try to see where you might be misconstruing the object of your complaints with negatively-conditioned thinking. Then, see if you can look at it in a better way.