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How Complaining Rewires Your Brain for Negativity?

Madhur Gupta
Published: November 11, 2022

Complaining is negative, you all are aware of that but did you know that it physically rewires your brain for negativity? A rewired brain is then prone to complaining more until you eventually turn into a negative person completely.

How Complaining Rewires Your Brain for Negativity?


See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So, change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” – Eckhart Tolle

Research says that most people complain once every minute and an average person complains 15-30 times a day. You might think the number doesn’t apply to you, but you definitely complain more than you think you do. Since you get to offload, vent out, and release the held-up energy, complaining feels so good and that’s what makes it tempting too.

But so does taking drugs, consuming alcohol, smoking, or eating junk, right? That temptation is what makes them addictive and in turn severely harmful. 

Hence, It’s extremely disempowering to get stuck in the vicious cycle of ‘complaining’, to set negative to default over positive, to being a victim.

How Were You Wired to Complain?

Humans have grown up witnessing that gossiping, and complaining is the socially acceptable norms to bond at any gathering – a family occasion, getting to know strangers or a formal setup. Maybe it’s registered in your brain that this is okay.

But habit, good or bad, rewires your brains when you repeat them over and over again, and make them easier and automatic to repeat too. The more you complain, the more it rewires your brain for complaining again. The worse is that it doesn’t solve any problem or lead to answers, just an attempt from us to gain pity, comfort, or some validation.

A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that on average, optimists (ones with a positive outlook on life) have a 55% lower risk of death across all causes than pessimists.

Intriguing, right?

Let’s Refer To Science To Understand This Better:

The brain is an efficient organ that continues to develop. It incurs physical transformation on basis of habitually occurring thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This leads to the repetition of those habits more easily in the future. So when you are complaining or simply hearing someone complain over and over again every single day, you are damaging your brain.

This was the macroscopic view, now let’s go deeper into the movements and rewiring that occur on account of complaining.

1. Neurons That Fire Together, Wire Together

One of the earliest pioneers of neuroplasticity and neuropsychology, Donald Hebb taught us this.

Neurons throughout the central nervous system communicate via a site called a synapse, enabling one neuron to communicate with another. When you look at a synapse under a microscope, you find empty space between an axon of one neuron and a dendrite of another, this space is called the synaptic cleft, acting as a bridge between neurons for electric signals to cross.

Thoughts for the brain are electric signals which carry along with their charge the relevant information you are thinking about. For any information to travel, the brain creates neural pathways for its path. When you have a thought, chemicals from one neuron are shot across this cleft to another, carrying the relevant information you are thinking about.

Each time a thought triggers an electrical charge, synapses grow closer together for the charge to cross the bridge easily. Hence, to make it easy for the thought to trigger, and for synapses that share the chemical link to spark together, the brain continuously rewires its circuitry. This means, if you constantly complain about triggering negative thoughts, you are allowing the synapses associated with those thoughts to grow even more hence, making negative thoughts default for the brain.

2. Negativity Breeds Negativity 

Just like you, your brain doesn’t want to work hard either, hence, the repetition of thought begins to create short and quick pathways making it easy for that thought to surface. The shorter the path, the more quickly that thought becomes dominant. In the end, repeated negative thoughts occur to you randomly without a cause. It’s like entering into a morass, and now the more you try to move or get out of it, the more you get deeper and deeper.

Alex Korb, Ph.D., and author of ‘The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time’ — “In depression, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the brain. It’s simply that the particular tuning of neural circuits creates the tendency toward a pattern of depression. It has to do with the way the brain deals with stress, planning, habits, decision-making, and a dozen other things — the dynamic interaction of all those circuits. And once a pattern starts to form, it causes dozens of tiny changes throughout the brain that create a downward spiral.”

3. Functionality of the Brain Affected

Sudha Seshadri, a professor of neurology at Boston University, talks about the 70-year-old Framingham Heart study which is now repeated on the grandchildren of original volunteers. The study found that the highest cortisol levels were associated with changes that could be seen on an MRI scan of the brain as well.

Well, it’s true that negativity in your system is bound to create stress. Stress releases cortisol, which is basically the human built-in alarm system, directing us to either fight or flee and in the cases of just thoughts, neither of them apply to the chemical continuing to accumulate in the blood. Repeated complaining results in the release of cortisol at higher levels. Chronic high cortisol may damage the hippocampus which is responsible for memory and problem-solving in the brain, and may also act as a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

You Have To Be Cautious. Negativity is Stronger

It’s too easy to get caught in an aggressive mob, more so than a peaceful protest. You will find yourself attracted to gossip more than brainstorming. Jim Rohn says, “You are the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.”

Your brain experiences the emotions of others, making you able to relate to their sufferings or negative emotions. Each moment you are in an environment of such negativity, it rewires your brain for the worse.

You have to make a choice, a choice of your surroundings, those who surround you, and choice before you complain. 

You can choose to take a different road,
to never fall into the morass in the first place. 
You can choose to learn and focus 
on how to better yourselves and grow yourselves instead

You can use the weakening moments of feeling disempowered 
as an opportunity to stop and reflect on situations, 
share your gratitude for things you value, and 
remind yourself of strengthening affirmations.

You always have a choice, 
before you complain and how you complain too. 

If said constructively, accompanied with an insight or a solution, complaining can become a medium to something positive too.