No one wants to be a Debbie Downer, but let’s be honest: Complaining can be cathartic. Whether it's work stress, bossy in-laws or a knee injury, it's a natural impulse to vent frustrations to any listening ear. While blowing off some verbal steam may provide some temporary relief—validation from others that your trials and tribulations are legitimate, and maybe a dose of sympathy to boot—airing your grievances may do more harm than good, in the long run.
In addition to spreading negative energy, studies show that complaining can also impair our mental health. Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist and professor at Stanford University, has performed in-depth research into how negative energy and stress can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain that's involved in forming memories and linking them to emotions. Sapolsky found that consistent exposure to any type of negative stress—such as listening to someone complain—can eventually cause the hippocampus to shrink, thus impairing the brain's cognitive ability. The effects are seen not only in the griper, but also the listener.
Every time we give voice to a negative thought, or listen to someone else complain, a synapse in the brain fires across to another synapse, carrying that little package of pessimism along with it. Over time, consistent complaints can ultimately rewire the brain, making it easier for negativity to get passed around. In a nutshell, one complaint leads to another—then another and another.
The good news? Not only do you have the power to break free from the vicious complaint cycle, but you can prime your brain to expect positivity. According to certified fitness trainer Cheryl Russo, complaining consistently is a habit that can be broken if you commit to thinking before you speak.
"Ask yourself if you have control of the action or situation that causes you to have a negative reaction," Russo says. "If you have no control, then you need to let the feelings go. If there is some action you can take to change the outcome of the experience, then you need to actively engage."
Leave Debbie behind and become a regular Susie Sunshine by incorporating these six complaint-busting strategies into your daily life.
1. Focus on Solutions, Not Problems
In today's hyper-sharing world, complaining tends to be more about unloading negative feelings onto other people, rather than seeking a viable solution to a problem. For example, when you grumble to a girlfriend about a failed diet, the pessimism will leave both of you feeling dejected and disillusioned. Rather than focusing on lack of results, focus the conversation on new strategies for achieving your initial goal. Instead of saying, "Nothing works for me," ask your friend if she has any recommendations for different nutrition or exercise plans. Stop complaining about how slowly the weight is coming off and celebrate the fact that it's coming off at all.
Russo often reminds her clients that there will always be a solution for their complaints, but they must be open-minded and willing to find it. "If you complain that you eat too much junk food, stop buying it," she says. "If you complain that you eat too much, get a scale and measure out your portions. If you complain that you don’t have time to work out, know that you only need to find 30 minutes a day, and it doesn't have to be consecutive. You can wake up 10 or 15 minutes earlier each day, fit in 10 minutes of movement during lunch and then 10 minutes after dinner."
The key, Russo says, is learning to use your energy more productively to improve a situation, rather than simply bemoaning it.
2. Master the Art of Positive Self-Talk
Emily Owens, a NASM-certified personal trainer with LedBetter, says that positive self-talk and internal motivation are essential to developing healthy habits and reaching any type of goal, whether it's related to fitness, family, career or another pursuit.
According to the Mayo Clinic, positive thinking and self-talk have a direct correlation to health and wellness. People who celebrate their successes, rather than lamenting their setbacks, may have lower rates of depression, reduced risk of heart disease, stronger resistance to cold and illness, and even a longer life expectancy.
"Your mind will believe anything you tell it, so by constantly coming up with excuses, you're only deterring yourself from progress," says Owens. "The best way to avoid complaining is to channel your mind in a positive direction."
3. Get SMART about Your Goals
Owens recommends setting SMART goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. When you have a specific objective in sight—and you've mapped out a clear path to get there—you'll be less likely to dwell on the obstacles and more empowered to overcome them.
"Once you've defined your goals, remind yourself daily that you are worth reaching them," Owens says. Consider writing inspirational quotes on your mirror, downloading a motivating background on your phone or computer, creating a motivational bulletin board and leaving encouraging sticky notes around your house so you constantly feel empowered to achieve.
4. Learn to Appreciate Every Stage
Owens maintains that achieving long-term weight-loss goals requires appreciation of your body at every stage. "You have to show yourself the same love, grace and respect that you would give to a friend or loved one," she says. "As you learn to treat your body like the temple it is, your perspective will be refreshed. Be your own fitspiration!"
One way to become more self-appreciative is to stop measuring your progress against other people's results. Social media can be a rich source of inspiration and motivation, but it can also lead to unhealthy comparisons. "Avoid comparing yourself to the next person, and instead compare yourself to who you were yesterday, a week ago, a month ago or even years ago," Owens recommends.
5. Get on the Gratitude Train
In addition to appreciating your body just as it is, extend that gratitude to all aspects of life. Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and CEO of Good Think Inc., told Inc.com about the surprising effectiveness of regular appreciation: "Something as simple as writing down three things you're grateful for every day for 21 days in a row significantly increases your level of optimism, and it holds for the next six months."
In fact, research has shown that consistent gratitude can actually change the way the brain works. In one study conducted at Indiana University, a subset of participants wrote daily letters to people expressing their gratitude. After three months, the letter-writing group continued to experience feelings of thankfulness, and brain scans revealed different neurological activity than those who didn't write letters.
6. Redirect Negative Energy into Positive Movement
Every time you get the urge to complain, redirect it into a physical activity that gets you closer to your ultimate goal. This could be a quick walk around the block or office, a short session of stretching or yoga, or a few push-ups or sit-ups. The key is to get into the habit of diverting would-be whining into a calorie-burning, self-affirming activity.
Getting stuck in a cycle of complaints—either on the giving or receiving end—can derail even the best of intentions. What strategies have you found to be effective in pulling the plug on negative chatter?
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