Listening to just 30 minutes of negativity—in person or on television—can damage neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for problem solving. According to Trevor Blake, author of Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life, neuroscientists have demonstrated how the brain reacts to various stimuli such as negativity.
“The brain works more like a muscle than we thought,” Blake said to Inc.com. “So if you’re pinned in a corner for too long listening to someone being negative, you’re more likely to behave that way as well.”
Blake explained that being exposed to too much complaining can actually make a person ‘dumb’ because of how it affects the neurons in the hippocampus. A half an hour of complaining “turns your brain to mush.”
Despite the detrimental impact of negative thoughts on the brain, Blake said there is a difference between complaining and having someone bring your attention to an important matter which needs to be addressed.
“Typically, people who are complaining don’t want a solution; they just want you to join in the indignity of the whole thing,” he said. “You can almost hear brains clink when six people get together and start saying, ‘Isn’t it terrible?’”
It is this form of negativity which Blake says damages the brain even if an individual is just passively listening. In an office setting, such comments may be unavoidable; however, there are ways to shield the brain from the negative effects of complainers.
The first step, according to Blake, is to distance yourself from the individuals complaining as much as possible. “The approach I’ve always taken with complaining is to think of it as the same as passive smoking,” he explained, indicating he used the same tactic to avoid exposure from his father’s chain smoking.
In addition to distance, forcing the negative individual to face the problem can also be beneficial. This tactic is generally employed when someone is unable to distance themselves or walk away from an issue. When confronted with the decision to remedy the problem, Blake says most complainers walk away, or better yet, they actually make an effort to address the complaint.
“Try to get the person who’s complaining to take responsibility for a solution,” he said. “I typically respond to a complaint with, ‘What are you going to do about it?'”
Lastly, if listening to the complaint is the only option, Blake recommends using mental techniques to shield the brain from the effects of negativity. He describes the process as “like a Harry Potter invisibility cloak,” or mentally journeying to your dream destination.
“For me, it was a ribbon of beautiful white sugary sand that extended out in a horseshoe shape from a private island,” Blake remarked. “I would take myself to my private retreat while people were ranting and raving. I could smile at them and nod in all the right places and meanwhile take myself for a walk on my private beach.”
For people who are prone to complaining, Heather Luszczyk of Natural Healing News suggests making a conscious choice of whether to complain about problems or rejoice about blessings—both are always present, she writes.
To help people break the chronic habit of negativity, Luszczyk suggests replacing complaining with appreciation and forming positive relationships with individuals rather than those based on gossip.