Why Complaining Literally Shrinks Your Brain (and What You Need to do Instead)

The simple guide to avoid negativity and toxic people to succeed in life.

When things go wrong at work or in life, we vent in the hopes of releasing stress like a teakettle releases steam.

While there are certainly times where you need to speak up for yourself and bring matters to attention, complaining unproductively or unnecessarily in conversation has actually been shown to have measurably negative effects on our brains. And the effects of people who complain like this spreads like a common cold.

Trevor Blake, the accomplished author of Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life, cites several Stanford University studies in his book, which show that not only does stress and complaining impact how our gray matter processes information, it physically peels away neurons from an important part of our brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for intelligent and critical thought, and shrinks it.

As is the case with most bad habits, it feels good to complain. Turns out that there is a biological explanation for this feeling. Complaining works like a muscle. The more you complain about things like flakey friends or being asked to push up a project’s deadline, the more neurons in your brain stitch themselves together to easily facilitate this kind of information. Before you know it, complaining becomes so easy for your brain to grasp, you start doing it without even consciously registering the behavior.

Even if you’re not the one doing the complaining, engaging or encouraging negative or gossipy colleagues can have the same impact on your mental health, and this can lead to other adverse effects like decreased productivity and increased cortisol levels. But, luckily, there are some measures you can follow to ensure your health and work ethic are in tip-top shape.

Here are five ways you can curb your complaining habit and also effectively avoid negativity from toxic coworkers in order to navigate the workplace effectively without it:

1. Be mindful

When you eliminate complaining from your life, being hyper-vigilant of what you say and think is a key first line of defense. Before you speak or respond to a text or email, quickly ask yourself if what you want to say reinforces positive or negative thinking habits. If you find yourself thinking of complaints, try to nip that behavior in the bud and direct your energies towards something more productive.

As Blake notes in his book, “You cannot delete a thought, but you can have a better thought. When you catch yourself in the middle of a complaint, stop, and then reach for a better thought.”

Good habits take time to perfect, so don’t get discouraged, if you find yourself complaining occasionally. Life happens, and sometimes it’s unavoidable. Even if you slip up, being mindful and self-aware of that fact will continue to help reinforce the new behavior in your mind.

2. Reframe negative thoughts

Another excellent way to become less of a complainer is to reframe negative thoughts to be more positive when they crop up.

In Blake’s book he illustrates this idea with clothes shopping. He suggests that, “Instead of telling yourself, ‘That’s a nice shirt, but I can’t afford it,’ change the message to, ‘That will look great with my black pants when I can afford it.’”

The takeaway here is that revising thoughts to more optimistic builds health neurons and brain activity, and most importantly, will keep you positive.

3. Redirect negative conversations

At work, a conversation that bonds many coworkers together is complaining about their job or fellow peers. Not only is this not the most professional thing to do, the health consequences just aren’t worth it. According to Blake, “If you’re pinned in a corner for too long listening to someone being negative, you’re more likely to behave that way as well.”

Other than surrounding yourself with more positive people at work, you can also try to guide positive conversations with your coworkers. For example, if someone is complaining about a deadline, you can shift the conversation to be about the new opportunities their completed work will bring.

Obviously, there are always exceptions to every rule. There are negative aspects we all deal with in life, such as helping a depressed friend through a rough time. You don’t have to shut people out, but cutting out needless gossip and complaining will do wonders for your well being!

4. Search for a solution

We’re usually not looking to find solutions to our problems when we complain, but to vent or wallow in them instead. Addressing problems is a necessary part of life, but it’s when we make ourselves victims or complain fruitlessly that our health suffers as a result.

Psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel Guy Winch, found in his research that “ 95% of consumers who have a problem with a product don’t complain to the company, but they will tell their tale to eight to 16 people. It’s unproductive because we’re not complaining to the people who can resolve our issue.”

When adversity strikes, instead of griping, try to find a tangible and productive solution to the problem at hand. Same goes for a complaining coworker. Ask them what steps they can take to solve their issue instead of engaging in useless and harmful negative banter. Doing this will strengthen your problem solving skills and train your brain to seek out more positive options first.

5. Practice gratitude

When we complain, we train our brains to look for the negative qualities in something or someone. This can lead to deleterious results in our professional and personal relationships. To combat this, practice gratitude. If you’re thankful that an employee stayed late to work on a proposal, for example, thank them. Being grateful for positive traits can be infectious in a work environment. When people feel appreciated and valued, they’re more likely to exceed your expectations instead of falling into complainable behaviors.

In case you’re still giving this advice the side eye, there’s a pretty big slew of science backing up how gratitude can help success:

Yale studies say practicing gratitude will result in higher alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy.

Stanford offers an intense class that had gratitude journals, which made students 27% less stressed.

Harvard studies indicate gratitude improves health and strengthens relationships.

But entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey put it better than any study when she said, “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”

You can start this today. When you’re riding the subway to work, crushed between four sweaty people who have a nodding acquaintance at best with the concept of bathing, think of the fact that you have transportation. You can get to your job, where being on time can lead to a promotion, and a promotion can get you noticed by HR, and so on.

And if it doesn’t, something better could still come along.

If you liked these tips, you’ll really like my column for Inc. Magazine and my latest project, Love The Hustle.

Do you have any ways to increase positivity and end complaining for good? Give me a shout-out on Twitter or leave a comment!