Health

All the Reasons Complaining Is Bad for You

Published On 03/29/2016 Published On 03/29/2016
man yelling into phone
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Whether you have a student debt load that's higher than your salary, a roommate who never does the dishes, a smartphone that’s two generations old, or all of the above, you probably have endless things to complain about. Hey, no one said adulthood was dreamy. But rather than giving you catharsis, regularly airing your grievances might negatively impact your health.

Mental health expert Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell School of Medicine, acknowledges that while complaining is a part of everyone's life, you should take a hard look at the degree to which you grumble. "It's often OK to complain," she says. "It’s really about the volume, tenacity, and how much expectation that someone else can fix [the problem you’re complaining about]."

As if there weren’t enough to gripe about already, here are some serious health problems constant complainers can add to their lists of woes.
 

It makes you anxious

Constant griping about everything from financial and work woes to delayed commutes and a tiny apartment feeds anxiety. "Someone who is obsessive or anxious about their thoughts may have the same toll of anxiety on their body or mind," says Dr. Saltz. She adds that "anxiety causes bursts of norepinephrine" -- a stress hormone partly responsible for that horrible, panicky fight-or-flight feeling -- which raises blood pressure and blood glucose levels. This, in turn, releases cortisol, and too much of that causes problems like weight gain, immune system suppression, and cardiovascular disease. "Stress is the common denominator. Stress causes aches, pains, and gastrointestinal problems," says Dr. Saltz.

Constant griping about everything from financial and work woes to delayed commutes and a tiny apartment feeds anxiety.

It makes you lonely

When's the last time you were excited to grab beers with your whiny, pessimistic friend? Probably never, because constant criticisms drive people away. "The person you’re complaining to may feel pulled into your negative affect, pulled into your dark place, as they try to be empathetic. That can cause harm to your relationship," says Dr. Saltz. Dr. Sanjay Gupta has written that "Loneliness is an invisible epidemic that affects 60 million Americans." Feeling isolated and rejected causes repeated stress-related cortisol releases, increased risk of death, and accelerated cognitive decline.

Too much complaining can also cost you your job -- one of the most stressful life events, and one that will leave you surrounded by even fewer people. "If you are unburdening yourself a lot to your co-workers, it can be off-putting," says Dr. Saltz. "It can make you seem less capable than you are."
 

It could mean you're depressed

While there’s little evidence that complaining itself causes depression, it may be a symptom of underlying mental health issues. And kvetching certainly isn’t a useful coping mechanism for dealing with depression.

"The more attention you pay to your own complaints, the more you’re stuck in a cycle," Dr. Saltz adds. "That positive reinforcement keeps the negative thoughts alive." Deploring life’s little difficulties is an unhealthy way to address them, and may leave you struggling to find happiness.
 

How to break the complaining habit

The occasional vent session won’t kill you, but how you complain can make a big difference in your life.

First, figure out what’s driving the complaints. "Awareness of where it’s coming from is a good chunk of the battle," says Dr. Saltz. "So many people are unable to be self-analytical and think about what complaining means to them." Ask yourself whether you’re complaining to seek attention and gain understanding, or actually solve the problem. If it’s the latter, make sure you’re directing your complaint to the right party -- don't complain to your partner that the DMV is horrible and inefficient, since she's nice enough to listen to you talk about the DMV at all.

If you’re expressing dissatisfaction about the regular pitfalls of daily existence (who doesn't love that?!), try to find ways of reviving positivity, rather than ruminating on problems. "[Complaining] may be a maladaptive technique a person isn’t even aware of," says Dr. Saltz. Digging into an ice cream, going for a walk, or listening to music will make you feel so much better than whining. Your mental health (and your social circle) will be forever grateful.

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Joni Sweet is a writer whose biggest complaint is the slow, painful death of the Oxford comma. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @JoniSweet.

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