Stop Complaining, It's Bad for Your Brain (and How to Cope)

By , SparkPeople Blogger
In the last few years, as I’ve committed myself more deeply to practicing yoga and embracing its philosophy, I’ve cultivated habits that make me a calmer, less emotionally volatile person. Among those habits that I’ve worked to break is complaining.

I grew up in a house where complaining was common. Though this habit bothered me, I found myself reacting the same way when I was out of my element—especially when some incident forced me out of my comfort zone (such as car issues). I think age and life experience helped me outgrow these reactions, but it was not without effort. I don’t always succeed, but I’ve made great progress. Consider these two scenarios:

Last year, the battery in my car died, unbeknownst to me. I had turned on my flashers while getting out of the car one night. As a result, my car alarm started going off in the morning and nothing I tried made it stop. I had a busy morning ahead of me, and this car issue quickly sullied my mood. I called my boyfriend a few times, desperate for help. He was en route to a bike race in North Carolina so there was obviously nothing he could do for me. The first time I called for help. I tried his suggestions, they didn’t work, so I called back to complain that it was still going off (not to yell at him but just to complain about my present situation). Meanwhile, my day wasn’t getting any less busy, the car alarm was still going off, and I was right where I started. Eventually I figured out how to remove the fuse connected to the alarm, called AAA, and got a jump-start. Problem solved—probably an hour later than it would have been if I had started by thinking not whining.

Fast-forward several months: Someone sideswiped my car while it was parked in front of my apartment building, taking off the driver’s side mirror. I awoke early and found it, and though I wasn’t happy, I didn’t complain and didn’t get stressed. I called some repair shops and then forgot about it. The problem was no big deal, it wasn’t pricey to fix, and even though it was a hassle to pay money for something I didn’t do and deal with someone else’s mistake, I knew complaining would do no good. As a result, it had much less of an effect on my day than the other incident had.

With a different approach, an unpleasant situation can seem be a tiny ripple in your life rather than a tidal wave. Cultivating patience takes practice, and you can’t learn it when life is peachy keen. Thus rough patches become opportunities to practice.

I focus on taking a positive approach to anything that comes out of my mouth, and if I do complain, I try to do it with perspective. In fact, when we’re having a rough day, Coach Nicole and I often say or type “first world problems,” as a way to show that we’re able to laugh at the trivial nature of our problems. (Thank goodness we work with people who keep complaining in check!)

SparkGuy recently sent us this article, which says that complaining is bad for your brain in multiple ways. And it’s not just the complainers who suffer. It’s the listeners, too.

When we’re repeatedly exposed to negativity in real life or on TV, we’re more likely to be negative ourselves. And it actually makes your brain “mushy,” say researchers.

Wow. That’s will make me think twice about whining when life hands me a lemon.  
The article offers three tips for dealing with complainers, and I’ll share my own coping mechanisms. (And I should note, for me there’s a difference in helping someone deal with a difficult life event and dealing with someone who complains about everything all the time. I only use these tactics when dealing with the latter. With the former, I employ compassion and good listening skills.)

I don’t engage. When dealing with a perpetual complainer, I become a bad listener. I say something vague like “oh, that’s too bad,” then I change the subject. Or I ask a question about something I know (s)he likes as a way to focus on a positive topic.
I filter out the negative. I have a loved one who constantly complains on the phone to me, and I flat-out don’t listen. I pretend I am, and I focus on breathing, say “uh-huh” and let her vent. I don’t say anything to encourage, and I let the negativity pass right through me without letting it affect me.

I get rid of the complainers. Remember when I wrote about decluttering my life in the physical and emotional sense? As part of simplifying my life and saying no more often, I also shrunk my social circle—and that includes on social media. I “hid” and (gasp!) defriended people who either complained all the time or overshared online. I shouldn’t know the intimate details of my high school chemistry lab partner’s life. If by chance I do see that person in real life again, there will be nothing to say, no surprise after years apart—Facebook will have spoiled the moment! Go ahead and hide the worst offenders from your feed or unfollow them on Twitter. Most people don’t notice!

As I continue to cultivate my own habit of patience, I remember a quote from my go-to motivator and spiritual teacher, Pema Chodron: "Whichever of the two occurs, be patient--Whatever happens in your life, joyful or painful, do not be swept away by reactivity. Be patient with yourself and don't lose your sense of perspective." There’s a difference between doing nothing and not reacting. I focus on taking action without reacting, which allows me to stay patient while coping with an unpleasant situation.

Don’t react. Be patient. Be kind to yourself and others. And if you do need to vent, preface it with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. It helps put everything in perspective.  

Are you guilty of complaining too much?
How do you deal with complainers in your life?

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LOSER05 5/27/2020
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ARNETTELEE 1/25/2020
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ANHELIC 1/22/2020
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Everyone complains from time to time, venting is healthy. Chronic complainers are something else. I lived in an apt complex where we would sit out front & chat on nice days. We got a new neighbor who was a chronic complainer. I used to tell her this is our "happy" place" & we were only to talk about good things in our life. If we had complaints they had a 1 minute time limit & some suggestions would follow. I refused to befriend her (spend time alone with her). I prefer to be up front than to rudely pretend to listen.
I have some relatives that are chronic complainers also, I will limit the time I talk to them or tell them I can't talk negative today, & excuse myself.
Please, don't pretend to listen to someone, they might have a real problem, that needs real help, not "ah uh". Report
I realize that complaining does no good, but I yet have to learn this one. Report
Love this article. Now to just put it in to practice. .. Report
Oh wow! This hit me where I live. Good article at the right time. Report
Good article! Report
Guilty of this often. When someone said to me "can't complain" in response to "how are you?" I replied " I can always complain, but who'd listen." I meant it to be humorous, but I heard myself & cringed. Would love all suggestions on how to change a too well developed bad habit! Thank you! Report
Whenever someone asks how I am I often reply “Not bad. Can’t complain. Or if I did nobody would listen”. It’s like I tell my son. “Nobody likes a whiner” Report
LOVE to read Pema Chodron's writings! Thanks for this article! Report
It's my opinion that if we spend more time being grateful, we forget to complain. Report
Lots to think about! Report
"First world problems" is the best thing I've ever heard. Thank you for sharing this wonderful way to put things in perspective! Report
Great article. Reminds me that I'm a work in progress. Report
Wow! I needed to see this article TODAY! I have a man in my life who is a constant complainer when it comes to his job...He is just not satisfied anywhere he goes to work, even though just a few short months ago, he almost lost his car and his house because he didn't have a job! Rarely people are in a problem-free job. We need to remember what the lean times were like when a job was nonexistent! Report
To complain is to be human, to complain too much is annoying. Report
If only others would use these techniques before calling customer service lines. When working customer service, using mental imagery to escape or tuning the person out equals not doing your job. We try to employ many techniques to redirect or change the attitude of the conversation, but that does not always work. By the end of the day even the best of us does not have a full smile in there voice.... Report
I'm not much of a complainer. I have little patience for those who complain too much. I much prefer to be with positive minded people. Report
Bad science is bad. Report
I agree with BeLDAME, complaining is a way of venting and you have to get it out. I don't see it as the same as someone being a negative person. I think we find irritating in others what we dislike in ourselves. I don't let complaining get to me. I don't take on other people's problems. If I were to eliminate the complainers in my life, I would be a lonely hermit, complaining to myself about my lack of friends. I am more interested in surrounding myself with people who share the same values than people who are happy, clappy and smiley. I want people of substance and action in my life. False positivity puts blinders on us and makes us blind to injustice. Be human, be yourself. Report
Venting is necessary and cathartic, so it is good to blow off steam sometimes, rather than letting it fester.
You know what I find more irritating than people airing legitimate gripes? False positivity. You know, all the warm fuzzy touchy-feely "If we say that things are good, then they are!!" positive affirmation BS nonsense. Report
I have trouble knowing what 'complaining' officially is. For instance, I wouldn't think that someone who is 'complaining' that this is the year anniversary of their husbands' death today and they feel so sad is being 'selfish' by bringing me down. And sometimes I feel like people who are sad/depressed, in the company of people they don't know that well, have a tendency to remind people that they shouldn't be so happy by 'complaining' about whatever - the new boss, the new president, etc. I think these things are often a cover for other sadness, and probably if you said "You seem sad today - is something wrong?" that would open the door for them to be more real. (Maybe in private, not in front of everyone necessarily). I also see that complaining can be a habit though, and a way of expressing a desire for companionship that pushes people away. What the author described - fixing a problem yourself rather than calling someone to complain about it - seems like a really healthy thing to do and the bonus is you get to have all the good feelings that come along with seeing yourself as a capable problem solver. Report
I think the important thing is to think about whether the complaining will achieve anything. Yesterday I found myself complaining to my husband (by text) about something minor he could do nothing about. What was the point of that? Just kept me dwelling on the negative for a few minutes more and fueled a bad mood-which led to chocolate, etc. So I agree with the author. She is not talking about not listening to people who are suffering, only people who are incessant whiners. Report
I de- cluttered my life a while ago - some people complain because they are lonely recognizing the difference is a key. Certainly I as a Caregiver to many cannot ignore complaints as they are Medically Coded as CC = Chief Complaint but I do filter out the people that are negative . Negativity has an effect on me - Good article - Thanks Report
I'd rather be genuine, than fake. Sometime's people complain a lot, and maybe if you take the time to actually listen to what they have to say, instead of 'pretending to listen', then you might be able to lend them some valuable advice to help them lift some of the negativeness off of themselves and their life. Or, maybe you'd find that their problems aren't as trivial as you assumed they would be before you tuned out. Report
I've been on *both sides* of this situation, and am currently in a very bad place in life because of this :( - will have to read this article in depth to see if it'll help in any way (I tend to do a lot of "quick glance" type of reading)..... Report
Thank you for this article. I also read the article link Spark Guy sent you. I have family members who are chronic complainers and I don't want to be around them. Report
Wow! I'm a complainer. The alarm and your boyfriend are the computer and my husband! Thank you for a very powerful blog!

This was my first reaction and then I read other comments. I think there are two approaches. Trivial complaining all the time is damaging to oneself and the people around us, but terrible things happen to people in all countries. Then we need to be able to talk to someone without feeling that anything not cheerful is forbidden.

This article is very valuable for what I do a lot, which is trivial complaining. Report
I appreciated the article. I find myself complaining alot. Not anything big, just complaining about alot of little things. I sometimes realize how much I have just complained and feel kind of bad because I know I'm not a joy to be around when I'm like that. I will be trying to work on that.
also....i thought it ironic that in the comments were tons of people criticizing/complaining about your article. I got sick and tired of reading their negative feedback to you and disagreeing/complaining about YOUR thoughts. This is a blog after all. You can have your own thoughts and opinions just like they do. I just quit reading the comments because they were sucking the good out of my day, I hope you have a good day. Report
We cannot always be "Polyanna" and smiling---- Offering empathy and concern to those who suffer is humane and kind. We don't get out of this ol world without some pain and grief, but we should also appreciate the pleasant times. My sincere sympathy to you, Hesteroonie, in the loss of your dear friend. My beloved brother died at age 40 from a dreadfully painful illness, bone cancer. How I miss him. . . Report
I completely agree with WOWGIRL51's comments.. I will also say that complaining isn't always bad. We all have bad days and you listen to mine and I will do the same. I never uh huh someone that is complaining, because I would be livid if someone did the same. How about offer suggestions. Sometimes complaints are valid not just people that love to talk. And if helps me put things in perspective... I even listen to coworkers. People are important and listening to them is a way to connect. Just my thoughts Report
I know someone in specific that complains about EVERYTHING and is such a drama queen. It's a headache just to have them around! Might be giving them this article! Report
I agree that it's somewhat amusing to complain about complaining. I also find it unnerving when people harp on the subject of "positive thinking." I recently said to someone who is always telling people in a highly critical way that the secret to success is to remain positive, "I have no desire to be positive. I just want to stay in touch with reality." I had a dear friend whom I lost to AIDS. He was my age, 37, at the time. It was an agonizing few months. I went to the hospital every day after work. Nothing positive there. He died and I lost my best friend. Report
While some of the techniques may be useful and can be used with serial complainers, the majority of the article in question is deeply flawed. I do not believe for a second that such research on the hippocampus even exists. 'Brain to mush'? It is just not viable. I challenge anyone to come up with a link to a well designed research study showing these effects. Furthermore, a lot of research has been done on the social aspects of complaining and support, research showing social bonding effects. Sometimes we need a little empathy when things are not going well and perhaps there is no easy(?) solution to be found. Also, people suffering from depression, or someone with suicidal tendencies looking for support who might be the complainers would be further harmed by someone employing these techniques. By all means rid yourself of 'toxic' relationships, but please employ a little more kindness to others. It won't damage your brain to offer support to someone going through difficulties, but may help to make us to be a little less self-centred. This is a position that the writer of the book mentioned would not understand. Read the comments below the article linked; some of them are far more realistic. We all have off days. Report
I admit I complain too much, and the more I complain, it does not seem to get better. It is incredible how easy is to complain instead of remain calm and patience. I am working on it and everytime I have the "chance" to complain I try to take a deep breath and look for a way to solve the issue or let it go.... it is not easy, I must say... Report
I absolutely love the "firstworldproblems"reminder-I am very involved in working with children and women in a very impoverished area in Peru, but in my daily life I still get caught up with my own 'firstworldproblems'-what a great way to keep perspective Report
I am totally guilty of complaining too much. I'm working on it though. I'll try to look on the bright side! Report
I think the issue is more complicated than you make it, Stepfanie, but your basic points are good. WHO is complaining, WHY s/he is complaining, and just WHAT the complaining is about all matter (as those things do in any relational situation). I'll give a friend a lot more leeway for venting/complaining than I will a casual acquaintance or colleague. I'll certainly listen to the complaints of a person in emotional distress more carefully than a chronic complainer who just does it.

It's good to have an 'awareness reminder' about this issue, but you've really only scratched the surface of human communications! Report

What an awesome comment! I was so inspired by it that I immediately added you as my friend on SP. I hope you accept my friendship :-). You are a compassionate person and may God Bless you......Ameen. Report
Dear "Stop Complaining"
Love your outlook on life!! I've been doing that of late ever since I realized I could push my chair back,stand up and say "I'm done" or just plain "No" and the world does not come to a end. People don't hate me and even if they do, I just respect their choice and move on. Isn't it great?? I wish I'd found this all out much sooner. : ) Thanks for sharing and good wishes for you! Report
This is a very good article. It is so easy to complain about.anything. Food for thought for sure! Report
Love this post!!! I've always been prone to anxiety and find that complaining only intensifies it. I try to always "act as if" and look on the bright side of things. Reading thing like this is helpful in reminding me that positivity is the way to go! Report
I find, I was more of a complainer, before I lost weight. I try my best not to complain. Everyone has their own set of problems, and really don't want to hear yours. I never want to be known as a whiner; I do know some who are and it is very annoying. I'm happier since my weight is down, and my mood is so much better. Report
Someone I run into often, asks me, "How are you?"

I answer, "Can't complain ..."

Even if it isn't true, it gets the ball rolling to be in a better frame of mind. Report
This article was so well written and thought out -- simply stunning! I'm going to print a copy and keep it in my nightstand to read before bed each night as a reminder that life goes past us at mach speed, and we all need and deserve only positive energy in our lives. Thank you for sharing this important nudge in the right direction. Report
Great article! Report
Hate to say this but aren't we now complaining about complainers? LOL
No, I really appreciate positive people and it is difficult when there are people around who are always negative about anything & everything. Report
Hmmm, I haven't been able to get rid of the complainer I work with. Nothing makes her happy. She just got back from a vacation at an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean and all she did was complain of how boring the trip was, how the weather was too hot, how she didn't like the place, etc. But I have unfriended people on FB in which almost every single time they comment, it's a complaint. I get tired of reading what is wrong in their life at that moment. Report
Great blog. I really needed to read this at this specific (and stressful) time in my life. "First world problems" puts things into perspective! Report