We all do it — you know, complain about people or situations in our life. We may even call it “venting” in an effort to disguise our complaining, but when it all boils down to it, they’re both the same behaviour.
On the surface, complaining may seem harmless — perhaps even helpful, as venting may make us feel better — but complaining can have serious physical and mental ramifications.
Society itself seems to encourage complaining — we complain about work and being overworked, we complain about lack of time and being too busy to enjoy life, we complain about politics (a favourite past- and present- time activity for many), we complain about family members and issues, we complain about lack of sleep and feeling exhausted, and we love to complain when we get sick— the list goes on and on….
Even if we ourselves don’t complain much (or so we think, though I hope this article makes you take a hard, honest look at your own habits, as it did for me), we all know of people who incessantly complain and how draining it is to be around these “negative Nellies.”
So, how does complaining affect us? From a brain perspective, “synapses that wire together fire together” — this is a basic premise of neuroscience. Every time you complain, you are reinforcing that wiring and making it easier to trigger it. Do it often enough and it can become your default setting. Negative thoughts beget more negative thoughts and you can easily fall into a cycle of negative thinking and chronic complaining.
In addition, misery loves company, so complainers tend to have friends who also complain, which further reinforces the pattern. Complainers also affect people around them. Ever find yourself sympathizing and sharing your own personal similar experience when someone complains to you about something specific? It can happen easily and unintentionally, even to the least complaining and most positive person. Sometimes this can lead to a long conversation comprising entirely of complaints, ie. focused on politics in a negative way or the fear and anger of what is going on in the world. Ask yourself, how do you feel afterwards?
Prolonged complaining leads to stress, and it’s well documented that prolonged stress makes us sick: weakening the immune system, raising blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, and causing a plethora of other ailments.
Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels (the stress hormone) interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, promote weight gain and heart disease, and increase blood pressure and cholesterol. Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression and mental illness, and lower life expectancy.
How To Stop Complaining
Being human, however, we may need to vent once in a while, so here are some tips to help you avoid over-complaining:
Take time out to cool off and step back from whatever is bothering you so you can diffuse your emotions/anger. Try some deep breathing, go for a walk in nature, hit the gym, meditate, or do something fun or relaxing to calm yourself.
Write down what is bothering you — writing helps us to better understand why we are upset and can help us see the situation with a more balanced perspective.
Take responsibility for your part in the situation; don’t just blame the other person as the wrongdoer. What is the learning for you? What is this situation teaching you? Introspection is helpful for finding balance and being open to a solution or determining if it’s best to let it go at this time.
If you need to vent, let the Listener know ahead of time, so they can prepare themselves or let you know that now is not a good time.
Keep it short — this is very important, as we humans tend to go into stories when we moan and groan. It’s best to keep your share to under 2 minutes to avoid drama and dumping. Ask your Listener to intervene and gently yet firmly stop you if you go past the 2 minutes — you will both be thankful.
Remember that complaining affects your energy, mood, brain activity, and stress levels. If you need to vent, keep it short and sweet, for everyone’s sake — especially your own.