Did you know? The average person complains once per minute during a typical conversation. While it may feel good to complain — otherwise known as “venting” — as one is voicing burdens that have been weighing them down, research shows the habit isn’t healthy.
This is because the brain loves efficiency and doesn’t want to work harder than it has to. In result, repeated behavior — such as complaining — results in neurons branching out to each other to ease the flow of information. Essentially, when neural pathways form, it becomes easier to repeat the same behavior, even if one is not aware of it.
1) “Synapses that fire together wire together.”
Steven Parton, an author and student of human nature, explains: “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.”
What this means is that if one is consistently negative, their personality will begin to tend toward the negative. In result, a depressed or anxious individual will find themselves increasingly pessimistic. “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,” says Parton.
2) You become who you hang out with
It’s important to note that your personal behavior rewires your brain for negativity, but so can the people you hang out with. According to Parton, this is because when an individual sees someone experiencing an emotion (anger, sadness, happiness, etc…), the brain “tries out” that same emotion to imagine what the other individual is going through.
To do that, it fires the same synapses so the person can attempt to relate to the emotion that is being observed. That is how empathy is formulated. It’s also how one can get caught up in what is called “mob mentality,” and begin to act like those they hang around.
The takeaway, according to Parton, is to “surround yourself with happy people who rewire your brain towards love.”
3) Stress takes a toll on your body
In the moment, it might feel good to complain about the driver who cut you off in traffic or the way your girlfriend nagged you this morning. Not only does it rewire your brain to become more negative, however, it adversely affects your body.
Parton insists that quitting the habit of complaining is essential for optimal health. He says, “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.”
All of these effects result from the stress hormone cortisol, which spikes when one is in “fight or flight” mode due to stress or eating large amounts of caffeine and sugar. Cortisol interferes “with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease…. The list goes on and on,” says Parton.
What To Do About It
If you’ve diagnosed yourself to be a negative Nancy, the best way forward is to first acknowledge that you have a tendency to complain. Second, cultivate compassion for yourself by admitting that no one is perfect and that to feel simply means you are human.
Constructive ways to form a better attitude follow:
1) Begin journaling
If you are having difficulties processing emotions or subduing anger, journal about them. Write down every single thing that is bothering you. Then, end every journaling session with 10 things you are grateful for and focus on the blessings in your life moving forward.
2) Take a walk in nature
Research shows that spending time in nature reduces stress, improves health due to the negative ions, uplifts those who are depressed, and calms anxiety. Go for a walk in a park, breathe in the fresh air, and know that whatever is bothering you in the present moment will pass.
3) Be specific
If you maintain the need to voice an annoyance about a certain person or situation, begin by speaking something positive. Then, address the situation by being as specific as possible. For instance, if a waiter was rude to you during dinner, speak with the manager and describe in as much detail – as emotionally composed as possible – the events of the evening. Accept what you cannot change, come to terms with the fact that you did take steps to remedy that which bothered you, and let it go.
Use your energy to focus on that which delights you in life and you will begin forming neural pathways that result in you being a more optimistic person.