Have you ever tried to stop thinking negative, or to start replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts?
Though it seems simple enough, in reality it can be a seriously tough task to accomplish.
Because your thoughts are invisible.
No one knows what’s going on in your head except you, and unless you voice or otherwise express those thoughts, they have very little tangible outcomes.
Even the great meditation masters will tell you it is futile to try and stop or control your thoughts. Rather, the goal is to become an observer of them—and even that takes a good deal of training.
Today I would like to make the radical suggestion that if you want to create more positivity and happiness in your life, that you STOP trying to change or control your negative thinking.
And instead focus on changing something more tangible: your words.
More specifically: Focus on refraining from complaining.
In today’s post we’ll cover how refraining from complaining can help you build a better brain, reduce common acute and chronic health ailments, and dramatically reduce negative thinking and self-judgment.
How Complaining Slowly Erodes Your Health, Happiness, and Hope
Just utter the word “complain” out loud and you’ll notice it carries an unmistakably whiney tone.
But despite that, complaint has become a chronic communication medium in our society. It’s so rampant that research has shown people complain an average of one time a minute1 in every conversation.
Add up all the conversations you have in a day, week, month, and year and that’s a whole lot of negativity entering and leaving your consciousness.
Plus, complaining is wickedly addictive, widely accepted, AND loves company. Which makes breaking the habit a unique challenge.
However, new research tells us that despite its normalization in modern society, complaint is actually harming our brains and ruining our health.
The Little-Known Health Consequences of Complaining
Complaining is not unlike other unhealthy habits.
Just like smoking or excessive drinking, it signals a pleasure center in our brains and triggers the release of the stress-relieving hormone cortisol, giving us a temporary feeling of happiness…followed by an inevitable crash.
And, just like smoking or drinking, complaint loves company which is why so many relationships are built upon common gripes.
But make no mistake, just because it feels good doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
So, how detrimental is complaining to your health?
Let’s start with how complaining leads to brain damage and memory loss.
According to research from Stanford University2, the stress caused by complaining literally shrinks your hippocampus—the part of your brain connected to the limbic system critical to memory, problem solving and spatial navigation.
It’s also one of the main areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
Brain damage and memory loss aside, as we touched on earlier complaining also stimulates the release of cortisol from our adrenal glands3.
Cortisol, known as “the stress hormone” is the same hormone released during fight or flight. It is a beneficial hormone critical for human survival, but…
…when released too frequently it depletes your adrenals and upsets your immune system leading to a slew of health conditions including:
- Impaired immunity
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune disease
- Sleep conditions
- Emotional imbalances
- Exhaustion and fatigue
- Premature aging
- …the list goes on and on
Complaining is also a sneaky energy-stealer that will trap you in a downward spiral of negativity and fatigue (until you become aware of it).
Fortunately, there are 3 specific steps you can take to break the complaint cycle and protect your physical and mental health.
I call it the 30-Day Refraining from Complaining Challenge, and here’s how to do it step-by-step.
Step 1: Develop New Awareness, Attitude, and Creativity
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” -Dr. Victor Frankl, Professor of Psychology and Neurology and Author of “Man’s Search for Meaning”.
You can’t change what you aren’t aware of. And because of its prevalence, complaining can be a tricky habit to detect.
The good news is, just by reading this blog post you have now become more aware of how complaining may be sneaking into your life.
So, what should you do when you catch yourself complaining?
First, be grateful! Because you’ve developed enough awareness to notice.
Second, shift your attitude away from complaining, negativity, or self-pity, to an attitude of gratitude. You’ve already started by being grateful for your awareness, now just take it a step further and ask yourself:
“What can I be grateful for in this moment and how can I change my words to reflect that attitude?”
For example, let’s say your child ate too much birthday cake at a party and was up all night with a stomach ache.
An attitude of complaining would manifest words like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so TIRED. My kid kept me up all night because he couldn’t control himself at a party. I should have never let him go.”
Whereas an attitude of gratitude would manifest words more like, “My son was up with a stomach ache last night, but I’m thankful he’s feeling better today. I’ll need to get some extra rest later.”
It may feel a little awkward and un-genuine at first (most new endeavors do), but as you rewire your brain through practice, you’ll find that gratitude will naturally crowd out complaining.
The final step in cultivating your awareness is to pay attention to those who attempt to pull you into their pity parties.
Though empathy is key in any relationship, it is important you take steps to break any “unholy” agreements with friends or co-workers.
That doesn’t mean you get preachy or judgmental of others, you simply inform them of your new perspective and refrain from engaging in the behavior you wish to change in yourself.
And as you stick to your guns, these relationships will either make a positive shift or dissolve in response to your outlook on life. Either way, you win.
Step 1 Action Items:
- Start by becoming aware of your complaints.
- Adopt an attitude of gratitude (a gratitude journal where you write down 5-20 things you’re grateful for each day can be helpful here).
- Next practice re-phrasing complaints in the spirit of gratitude as outlined above.
- Finally, beware of chronic complainers around you and disengage in those agreements and behavior.
Step 2: Understand the Difference Between Complaining and Relaying Information
Yes, there is a difference and it’s a lot like the difference between observations and judgments.
A judgment has an emotionally-charged feeling attached to it, an observation does not.
A complaint carries a victim mentality with it, a relaying of information does not.
The person with an attitude of complaint always feels as though she is having something “done to her” or “forced upon her”. For example: “I’m just so upset, the accident on the freeway made me late for work again.”
Conversely, the person with the attitude of gratitude is able to relay information and observations without a negative emotional component. For instance: “Looks like we’ll have rain again today. I’m glad the plants are so happy.” Or “Yes, I was late because of the accident on the freeway. I know to give myself more time on the drive to work from now on.”
Changing this takes a small shift in perspective from feeling “acted upon” by circumstances, to being empowered by gratitude to change our reactions to our circumstances or change what we can control.
Step 2 Action Items:
- Practice observing circumstances and relaying information as information without negativity. If you can incorporate gratitude into the mix, even better.
Step 3: Find a Like-Minded Buddy
Years ago, we initiated a voluntary 30 Day Refraining from Complaining Challenge at Santa Monica Wellness Center among staff, patients, colleagues, and friends—even the UPS man was part of it.
Though this was no small challenge for those involved, it ended up being easier than anticipated because of the group support.
The group dynamic matters here because when you decide to shift an ingrained pattern, like complaining, it can leave you feeling vulnerable and isolated—especially if you have built relationships or a social circle based on complaint.
For us, the group served as a safe haven as we learned to adjust our awareness, tweak our words, and start to change the way we expressed ourselves.
Your support system will also help you weather the temporary, yet inevitable discomfort that comes along with making a big change.
Remember, discomfort doesn’t mean something “bad” is happening—just like when you experience muscle soreness after a challenging workout, it’s just a natural part of the transformation process.
And for many people, there will be a feeling of emptiness, a void…and that’s okay. I believe Dr. Frankl, whom I quoted above, explained this best:
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” -Dr. Victor Frankl
Step 3 Action Steps:
- Partner up with a buddy or create a group challenge at work, on social media, or within your own family.
- Be sure and touch in with your buddy or group at least daily for support and inspiration.
- Repeat for 30 days, and see what happens…
What Can You Expect After 30-Days of Less Complaining?
After working with patients, family, and friends on this topic for years I have observed the following miraculous benefits of 30-Day Refraining from Complaining Challenge:
- Improved digestion
- Feelings of contentment
- Less stress and anxiety
- Better sleep
- Healthier relationships
- Increased positive thinking and self talk
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced cravings for sugar and processed foods
- Greater self-acceptance
- More rewarding relationships
- Improved focus, memory, and concentration
- An overall improved outlook on life
I often share with patients how thoughts can be the most harmful “toxins” of all…but that doesn’t mean they always need to be addressed directly.
There’s a strategy in Traditional Chinese Medicine known as “circling the dragon,” where we surround a painful spot with acupuncture needles to facilitate its release. We don’t drive needles directly into the sore spot (ouch!), rather let the surrounding needles do the work, which they do very effectively.
The same principle and strategy apply here.
As you clothe your negative thoughts and complaints in gratitude, friendship, and intention you will find your thoughts begin to mirror your words, and happiness, health, and peace will be your reward.