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Complaining Hurts Your Brain

Here’s how prominent psychologist Dr. Guy Winch explains the difference between chronic complainers and the everyday, run-of-the-mill optimists and pessimists (that we tend to be):

• Optimists: See a glass half full.

• Pessimists:See a glass half empty.

• Chronic Complainers: See a glass that is slightly chipped holding water that isn’t cold enough, probably because it’s tap water when I asked for bottled water and wait! There’s a smudge on the rim, which means the glass isn’t clean. Now I’ll probably end up with some kind of virus. Why do these things always happen to me?

It’s easy to believe that other people (not us!) are the grumblers. That’s because that thing called “complain” has a companion called “blame.” Spend too much time with those two and chances that we become mumblers and grumblers, too.

What A Pain

Chronic complaining can be highly contagious, inflammatory and difficult to treat. There’s no soothing ointment to slather on to make it go away. Some say it’s a little like second-hand cigarette smoke that affects us whether or not we’re the one doing the smoking. Trying to remain positive, motivated and productive amid a fog of unresolved dissatisfaction drains time and energy.

Your Nerves And Your Neurons

Scientific research from Stanford’s medical school revealed that exposure to 30 minutes of negativity every day (including negative news on TV) can physically damage the brain. It damages the neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for problem solving and cognitive functioning. This is significant because research also shows that in Alzheimer’s disease, the hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage.

Apparently, the brain works like a muscle and it’s possible to retrain our brains. So if chronic complaining (yours and theirs) starts to wear on the nerves (yours and theirs), it’s time to redirect the course of the conversations. In The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining The Right Way To Get Results, Winch offers tips for managing a culture of complaints in our personal and professional lives. Here are three:

Situation No. 1:

Chronic complainers do not see themselves as negative people. They perceive themselves as forever being on the losing end in a hard-knock world. They see themselves as merely responding to annoying aggravations.

Survival Tip No. 1:

Do not try to convince chronic complainers that things are “not as bad” as they think. That’s their cue to mention 10 more dissatisfactions and misfortunes that show how terrible things can be.

Situation No. 2:

Chronic complainers aren’t searching for solutions. They prefer sympathy and validation. In other words, they want to hear you say yes, your glass was chipped and you were given warm tap water instead of spring water (poor thing!) and you should probably get a good night’s sleep.

Survival Tip No. 2:

Shorten a grumble-a-thon by acknowledging the grumbler’s feelings. Express sympathy and understanding. For example, “That must be hard to deal with....” Then redirect the focus to the task at hand. That strategy detours the occasional grumbler, but sometimes you need to be more direct and give stronger signals.

“Unfortunately, we can’t fix everybody’s problems. When you just can’t listen anymore, find a nice way of extricating yourself,” says Dr. Ellen Spake, a director in the office of ministry at Rockhurst University. “Maybe say, ‘I’m sorry I don’t have a solution for you.’” Then wish them well and refer them to a professional.

Situation No. 3:

Perceptions about their hardships are deeply embedded in a chronic complainer’s sense of identity. Hardship is who they are. Typically, they air their problems, but they are not looking for solutions. Though your advice is terrific, they are likely to convince you that it won’t work.

Survival Tip No. 3:

There are obvious exceptions, but when the situation is chronic, avoid offering solutions. Most of us are not qualified to be a personal counselor or a coach. Stick to empathy (quickly stated) and distance: No lunch or coffee breaks with the negative ones. If they stop by the office or cubicle, draw a line, such as “I’m in the middle of something... pressed for time. Maybe we can catch up later.” If you are not a captive audience, they’ll stop coming by.

Oh, horrors! What If The Complainer Is You? 

Some years ago when Spake worked as a physical therapist and university professor, a colleague caught her off-guard with a question: 

“What’s your horror story today?” he asked.

“I thought I was a friendly, upbeat, positive person. But apparently I always had some kind of horror story,” Spake recalls. “I realized I wasn’t listening to myself, talking and griping. I had to become conscious of the way I was talking about things.”

If you think it’s hard to tune out a chorus of complaints in the workplace, you’re right. And how do we know if we’re the one who’s sounding the sour notes?

We listen and learn and change our tune. That’s how.

Whine In Moderation

If someone says you seem really stressed (grouchy) lately, pick up on the cue. For Spake, an “external source” asked a very hard question. And she took it to heart.

“Be willing to be self-reflective and really hear and listen and know yourself,” she says. “There’s a whole plethora of resources and tons and tons of books and coaches to help someone come from a positive place as opposed to a negative.”

 It’s true, being “gripey and nasty and confrontational is bad for the brain,” she says. “It stops the problem solving. It affects the hippocampus in our brain.”

Retrain The Brain

The problem is, if our complaining becomes habitual, we can become tone-deaf to the crabbiness that comes out of our mouth. Others hear it and tune us out.  

Even when we’re busy we need to “retrain the brain” to say, hey! Here’s a new playlist. It’s upbeat and harmonious. It helps bring us together for greater productivity, improved results and relationships or (who knows?) maybe a promotion. Certainly, we feel better about ourselves, and Spake says, “People will like you.”

Likability matters, not when it’s artificial, but when it’s sincere and well intentioned. Spake is right about that. Still, let’s see what the spunky and wise self-help psychologist Dr. Martha Beck has to say.

Like Clockwork

“Back in the 60s (and by that I mean the 1660s), a Dutch scientist named Christiaan Huygens realized that multiple pendulums mounted on the same wall always ended up swinging in perfect synchrony, even when he had set them in motion at different times,” Dr. Beck said in one of her many motivational columns and/or books. “In my experience, humans are just as likely to fall in sync as Huygen’s clocks. At the very least, many neuroscientists believe that our so-called mirror neurons can foster our ability to empathize with the emotions we observe in others.”

In fact, she believes, “One rage-aholic can fill an entire office with anger while a truly happy person can lighten the mood for everyone around.”

We Know You Don’t Like To Complain, But...

Check your self-awareness and check out the following: 

Purple Bracelet

Six years ago, Pastor Will Bowen challenged people to wear a purple Complaint Free bracelet for 21 days. Every time they complained (which was a lot!), they switched wrists and started over again. The idea exploded and some 10 million inexpensive bracelets have now been sent to people in 106 countries. Want to try it?


Do You Complain Too Much? Find out at: fitnessmagazine.com/fitness/quiz


If you put a lid on all complaints, frustration can become explosive. That’s damaging to you, your relationships and your life, according to Beck. As an option, try this:

• For a period of time, stop complaining aloud.

• Instead, vent on paper. Start with the words, “I’m upset about...” Then don't hold back. 

• Think of at least three things you can do to change the frustrating situation. Write it down.

• If that doesn’t help, keep venting on paper. Say, “I’m so upset I just want to...” Write down what you want to do.

• Then do it. Change jobs, take a vacation where no one can find you or—here’s an easy option—don’t hang out with anyone who’s passive-aggressive.

What Complaining Costs: By The Numbers

78% — The percentage of those polled who reported wasting at least three to six hours a week because of complaining from coworkers, not customers. That converts to one or more months spent every year dealing with antagonistic insiders.

73% — Have you every said, “You couldn’t pay me to work with him (or her)?” Well, you’re not alone. Nearly 75 percent of those polled said they would turn down a $10,000 pay raise if the job required them to work every day with a chronic complainer (the boss included). They said they’d rather stay in their current job at their current annual pay. In other words, people don’t want to work with “downers” even if you pay them.

11% — The percentage that said they actually left a job because a crabby coworker created a toxic environment.

$4,600 - $9,200 — Estimated annual cost employers lose per employee due to unproductive or counterproductive time. Overall, that converts to an estimated $10.2 billion a week if chronic complaining causes employees to get in a rut and spin their wheels.


(Contributing sources: Anita Bruzzese, USAToday, and Stop Complainers and Energy Drainers by Linda Swindling)