How complaining affects your health and business

Complaining gets easier the more you do it

It’s a fundamental right of being British; to complain about anything and everything. From the weather to the size of the cash machine queue to the temperature of the beer. In fact, most people spend more time complaining than laughing every day. That just doesn’t sound right does it?

All Brits love a queue and a bit of complaining, but it can get out of hand and affect your mindset
All Brits love a queue and a bit of complaining, but it can get out of hand and affect your mindset.

Your brain loves efficiency and doesn’t like to work any harder than it has to. When you repeat a behaviour, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behaviour in the future – so easy, in fact, that you might not even realise you’re doing it. It’s an evolutionary feature that keeps us safe from natural threats.  So, your neurons grow closer together, and the connections between them become more permanent.

Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behaviour, which changes how people perceive you.

How complaining is bad for your mental health and autonomous nervous system

When you complain, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol shifts you into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood and energy away from everything but the systems that are essential to immediate survival. This shift towards sympathetic dominance of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) raises  blood pressure and blood sugar so that you’ll be prepared to either escape or defend yourself. As a one off event this isn’t going to affect your physiology, but over time and with regular practice, the your body becomes resistant to normal levels of cortisol and you run the risk of habituating to higher and higher levels of stress hormone, until you no longer realise how negative you are.

Elevated cortisol levels are also known to affect memory forming and storing in the hippocampus, whilst other stress hormones such as catecholamines deactivate the prefrontal cortex, which is the higher cognitive centre for concentration, planning and decision-making. Effectively, persistent complaining chemically inhibits your ability to make good decisions.

Complaining friends and colleagues; you are who you surround yourself with

Since we have evolved as pack animals, our brains naturally and unconsciously mimic the moods of those around us, particularly people we spend a great deal of time with. This is called neuronal mirroring, and it’s the basis for our ability to feel empathy. The flip side, however, is that it makes complaining a lot like smoking – you don’t have to do it yourself to suffer the ill effects.

"Surround yourself with people who complement your weaknesses & share your passions - success will follow" Richard Branson. Be wary of the cognitive and nervous impact of complaining friends.
“Surround yourself with people who complement your weaknesses & share your passions – success will follow” Richard Branson. Be wary of the cognitive and nervous impact of complaining friends.

The complaining leader sends the wrong message

Whether you are a CEO, a director, a team captain or a parent, complaining communicates to those looking to you as a role model and for guidance that you aren’t in control of the situation. Sure, complainers have followers, often lots of them, but are they the people you want following you? As a leader I’m sure you are already probably aware that you need to embody the behaviours that you value in others, and yet complaining is often a behaviour that slips through and is instantly reinforcing to your followers that it’s ok to be passive or subservient to situation sometimes.

Your followers expect and deserve strong leadership, and that means demonstrating resilience and positivity in situations that lesser people would complain about. Sure, have a moan behind closed doors when you need one, but when you’re on duty, passivity isn’t a leadership quality.

Break the habit ; simple solutions to complaining

If you find yourself in a cycle of complaining, there are a number of options open to you to break the habit. And the first step is to identify the most common triggers for your complaining. These could be people, places, events that regularly trigger that complaining mindset.

1. Heart Focused Breathing

When you’ve established the key triggers, take the opportunity to carry out the following process when you feel your mindset being affected:

  1. Breathe slowly (ideally 5-6 seconds in, and the same out), in through the nose, out through the nose.
  2. Focus on the area of your heart, and imagine your breath flowing in and out through that area.

For most people, three or four breaths is enough to shift your state towards calm. Once you’ve practiced this enough to note a change in your state of mind, you can use it in the moment you notice a trigger or, in slower time, you can imagine yourself using it for other situations. Mental rehearsal is a technique used by elite athletes to wire in positive behaviours.

This technique is explored in more detail in this article.

2. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem

Complaining has the side effect of putting you in to a stuck, passive state. And few people enjoy being victim. Here’s something that you aren’t happy with and yet you’re not taking action to change things.  So consider the following:

  1. Is there a positive intention behind this? If you looked at the situation through other’s eyes who don’t have the same complaint as you, what positives can you find? Are you in the minority of people affected by this and are others benefiting that need this situation more than you do. Taking some time to shift perspective often results in new insight in to a situation.
  2. What can you do to change the situation? What steps can you take now to change the situation, if only slightly? This has the added benefit of moving you from victim to actor, which can result in you feeling more in control of the situation, and less likely to take a passive position next time.

So next time

When you catch yourself complaining, take a moment to switch off autopilot and decide the next course of action. Complaining, whilst fun for a while, is ultimately non-productive, affects your health and limits your options. Try something better for a change.

Further Reading

“Autonomic nervous system reactivity to positive and negative mood induction: The role of acute psychological responses and frontal electrocortical activity”. Willem J. Kop, Ph.D.,1,2 Stephen J. Synowski, Ph.D.,1 Miranda E. Newell, M.S.,2 Louis A. Schmidt, Ph.D.,3 Shari R. Waldstein, Ph.D.,4,1 Fox, Nathan A, Biological Psychology, 2011. Link here.

“The mind’s mirror”. Winerman, Lea, Monitor on Psychology, The American Psychological Association, October 2005. Link here.

“Stress and Physical Activity”, Hans Selye, McGill Journal of Education, 1976. Link here.

“Mental Rehearsal for Sport Performance: Exploring the Relaxation-Imagery Paradigm”, Gray, J, Haring, M, Banks, N, Journal of Sport Behavior. 1984. Link here.

“4 Behaviors You Never Want to See in a Leader”, Boss, Jeff, The Entrepreneur, 2014. Link here.


Experienced business leader, mentor and coach, with fascinations for technology, psychology and ancient philosophies. A self-confessed techno hippy with a unique talent for bringing the best out in people.

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