Being around people who are always complaining is hard. And although whining and moaning may seem like a good way to get rid of negative emotions and avoid bottling them up, it’s actually harmful for everyone involved. Yes, the complainer suffers as much as their listeners!
Obviously, a never-ending stream of complaints affects your mood. But there’s much more to it than just feeling irritated.
Hanging around chronic complainers can have demonstrably hazardous effects on your health. Not to mention their own.
Let’s start with the most apparent observation. The more you complain, the more rooted in negative thinking you become. “Synapses that fire together wire together,” as neuroscientists like to say.
The brain is a complex physical organ that works in tandem with consciousness to create your personality. It’s constantly learning and relearning things, wiring and rewiring itself.
Author and computer scientist Steven Parton examined the ways in which negative emotions in the form of complaining, both expressed by the self and experienced from others, affect the brain and body. His theory suggests that negativity physically alters the structure and function of the mind and body.
Every time you complain, your brain physically rewires itself to make it easier and more likely for that reaction to occur again. This extends to others around you: being forced to listen to an endless litany of complaints makes people less likely to form positive thoughts.
Another type of danger is a bit more surprising. MRI scans show that constant complaining can lead to shrinking of the hippocampus, the region in your brain responsible for cognitive functioning.
When studying patients that had suffered long-term depression, researchers noticed that the hippocampi were, on average, 15% smaller than those that had not been under stress. Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD had 26% small hippocampi than those vets that hadn’t been suffering.
The primary driver of these scary changes is stress. When you complain, you increase your levels of cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone.” Chronically high levels of cortisol can lead to a variety of health problems, including increased risk of depression, digestive problems, sleep issues, higher blood pressure, and increased risk of heart disease.
Crucially, shrinking hippocampus means serious memory problems. As your cognitive functions decrease, it becomes harder for you to learn new things and recall older ones. Add to this the constant barrage of complaints, and you end up literally wiping your brain of all the useful stuff only to replace it with more stress-causing negativity.
Apart from making you miserable, it will also shorten your lifespan. A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that optimists live longer than pessimists, with a 55% lower risk of death from all causes and a 23% lower risk of dying from heart failure.
“A predisposition toward optimism seemed to provide a survival benefit in elderly subjects with relatively short life expectancies otherwise,” the researchers wrote.
But how can you make yourself more optimistic?
You guessed it: the first step is to avoid chronic complainer. Moaning is contagious—and as you can see, it’s a disease that’s much more harmful than it might seem.
Focus on your own coping mechanisms. Sure, misery loves company, but in this culture of complaining, it’s important to balance your empathy with your desire to remain positive.
Don’t feel bad about it. Know that chronic complainers are not looking to solve their problems. In fact, they derive real value from the time and attention they get out of complaining.
Don’t give in, stay away, and take care of yourself. Your mind and body will thank you in the long run.