Health & Wellness Articles

The Pessimist's Predicament: Is Complaining Sabotaging Your Progress?

Stop the Negativity, Reap the Positive Benefits

No one wants to be a Debbie Downer, but let’s be honest: Complaining can be cathartic. Whether it's work stress, bossy in-laws or a knee injury, it's a natural impulse to vent frustrations to any listening ear. While blowing off some verbal steam may provide some temporary relief—validation from others that your trials and tribulations are legitimate, and maybe a dose of sympathy to boot—airing your grievances may do more harm than good, in the long run.
In addition to spreading negative energy, studies show that complaining can also impair our mental health. Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist and professor at Stanford University, has performed in-depth research into how negative energy and stress can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain that's involved in forming memories and linking them to emotions. Sapolsky found that consistent exposure to any type of negative stress—such as listening to someone complain—can eventually cause the hippocampus to shrink, thus impairing the brain's cognitive ability. The effects are seen not only in the griper, but also the listener.
Every time we give voice to a negative thought, or listen to someone else complain, a synapse in the brain fires across to another synapse, carrying that little package of pessimism along with it. Over time, consistent complaints can ultimately rewire the brain, making it easier for negativity to get passed around. In a nutshell, one complaint leads to another—then another and another.  
The good news? Not only do you have the power to break free from the vicious complaint cycle, but you can prime your brain to expect positivity. According to certified fitness trainer Cheryl Russo, complaining consistently is a habit that can be broken if you commit to thinking before you speak.
"Ask yourself if you have control of the action or situation that causes you to have a negative reaction," Russo says. "If you have no control, then you need to let the feelings go. If there is some action you can take to change the outcome of the experience, then you need to actively engage."
Leave Debbie behind and become a regular Susie Sunshine by incorporating these six complaint-busting strategies into your daily life.
1. Focus on Solutions, Not Problems
In today's hyper-sharing world, complaining tends to be more about unloading negative feelings onto other people, rather than seeking a viable solution to a problem. For example, when you grumble to a girlfriend about a failed diet, the pessimism will leave both of you feeling dejected and disillusioned. Rather than focusing on lack of results, focus the conversation on new strategies for achieving your initial goal. Instead of saying, "Nothing works for me," ask your friend if she has any recommendations for different nutrition or exercise plans. Stop complaining about how slowly the weight is coming off and celebrate the fact that it's coming off at all.
Russo often reminds her clients that there will always be a solution for their complaints, but they must be open-minded and willing to find it. "If you complain that you eat too much junk food, stop buying it," she says. "If you complain that you eat too much, get a scale and measure out your portions. If you complain that you don’t have time to work out, know that you only need to find 30 minutes a day, and it doesn't have to be consecutive. You can wake up 10 or 15 minutes earlier each day, fit in 10 minutes of movement during lunch and then 10 minutes after dinner."
The key, Russo says, is learning to use your energy more productively to improve a situation, rather than simply bemoaning it.

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About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.

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