I’m sure no one deliberately sets out to shrink their brain. If anything, most of us want to grow mentally–learn new things, open our minds to different points of view. But did you know that complaining can shrink and rewire your brain, harm your health, and attract more of the very things you complain about into your life?
You can find many articles taking off from a Stanford U. study indicating that stating, writing, or even hearing complaints “actually shrinks the hippocampus–an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought. Damage to the hippocampus is scary, especially when you consider that it’s one of the primary brain areas destroyed by Alzheimer’s. [“How Complaining Rewires Your Brain for Negativity” by Travis Bradberry.] This particularly concerns me because problem solving and intelligent thinking are inexorably involved in the consensus building and communication skills I teach.
In addition, nerves that fire together wire together. As Bradberry puts it, “Your brain loves efficiency and doesn’t like to work any harder than it has to. When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future…” You notice more and more negative things to complain about and fail to notice positive ways to improve your life and reach creative solutions to disagreements and other problems.
This supports my long-held belief that people are actually becoming biologically addicted to emotionally charged 24 hr. “news” and to repetively preaching complaints to their political choirs, and “Amen-ing” others–on social media, via email, around water coolers, at lunch, anywhere they can find a like-minded audience. It’s another science-based explanation for why the flip side of the Law of Attraction is for real: we actually attract more of the things we focus on and give our attention to, even if they are the very things we deplore and would like to eliminate. As I explained in “Desktop Optimism,” pessimists walk right past money and business contacts that optimists notice and take advantage of.
And of course, directly complaining to someone we want to influence to change, making them wrong, actually causes them to dig deeper into the positions we disagree with. See “People Resist Being Wrong.”
Finally, if all this brain damage, all the complained-about things we attract more of, aren’t enough to inspire us to focus on what we do want, rather than on what we don’t, Bradberry states that complaining releases the stress hormone cortisol that prepares one for flight or fight, and thus, raises blood pressure and blood sugar. All the time we spend on redundant news or Facebook rants is time spent with sustained high blood pressure and blood sugar that is only designed for dealing with emergencies.
But how does one go about breaking a habit, especially if the habit has become biologically supported? Don’t think of a hippopotamus. What just popped into your mind? A hippo, right? Your brain’s auto-pilot doesn’t hear the “don’t.” Telling yourself not to… doesn’t work very well, It can even reinforce the habit you wish to break. Here are some more effective alternatives:
- Set up a reminder system for noticing positive things. You can put three rubber bands around your left wrist in the morning. Every time you notice, reflect on, or comment on something positive, move a rubber band to your right wrist. Try to move all three rubber bands by lunchtime. In the afternoon, try to move all the rubber bands back to your left wrist. When you get home at night, try to move the rubber bands to the right one more time. Whenever you move a rubber band, take a moment to enjoy feeling good about the positive thing you have just noticed. If rubber bands don’t appeal to you, put three peppermints in your pocket or on your desk and eat one for each positive, replacing the peppermints every time you have eaten them all up.
- It also helps to keep in your mental hip pocket a positive image or memory, something you are grateful for. It can be a memory of a beautiful outdoor scene you visited. It could be an actual picture of a child or grandchild in your actual pocket or on your actual phone. Anything that helps you feel calm, serene, and joyful. Next, think of a positive trigger word you associate with the image, such as “peace” for the scene or “love” for the child. Then, whenever you catch yourself about to complain, especially if you’ve said it before and/or you know your listener already agrees, mentally say your trigger word, then, call up your mental scene or look at your picture. Think of a positive comment or question, or simply remain silent.
- Before turning in for the night, think back on any times during the day when you complained. Rewrite those scenes, imagining yourself making positive statements instead.
- Every day, write down at least five things you’re grateful for.
- Consider limiting contact with people who simply won’t, or can’t, stop complaining about things you’ve heard before.
As you practice one or more of the above remedies, make a note every evening about how you are feeling in general. Are you happier or calmer than before? Have you found yourself noticing more positive things in your life, things you can use to make life even better? The things you used to complain about–have they been getting worse, staying about the same, or getting better? If you are like me, you’ll find that things have been getting better. And that includes my efforts to improve the very things I used to complain about.