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Being around complainers is bad for your brain. Scientists have long known that the adult brain is surprisingly plastic — we can strengthen synaptic connections through repetition, for example, to improve our memory. But in a new study using functional MRIs, brain researchers found that the areas of our brain associated with perceptions and cognitive functioning are stimulated when we hear negative words.
This has led scientists to hypothesize that constant exposure to negative messages from complainers can reinforce negative thinking and behavior. In fact, fascinating new research proves that the brain can't distinguish fact from fiction, so if you keep hearing negative messages, your behavior will change to fit these new perceptions — and not in a good way!
But you can defend yourself against complaints — yours and others'. Using these self-defense strategies, you can rewire your brain and increase the frequency of positive thoughts and behaviors.
1. Interrupt the thought.
When you feel a complaint coming on, no matter how trivial, stop yourself. You can't delete the thought, but you can revise it before saying it aloud. So instead of saying, "Oh, that's pretty, but I would never be able to afford it," you might say, "That will look great with my gray pants once I've saved up enough money."
2. Change the dialogue.
When you participate in negative dialogue with a complainer, you'll walk away feeling depleted. Instead, redirect the conversation. If she says, "I hate Thursdays. The weekend can't come soon enough," counter her negative thoughts with a positive set of images: "I'm glad I'm nearly done with this big project — looking forward to some rest after tomorrow."
3. Switch a negative thought with a positive image.
If a negative thought comes into your mind, immediately conjure up a pleasant image. This is known as "neurogenesis" — creating new pathways in the brain that lead to positive behaviors. So if you hear sleet against the window and think to yourself, "The weather sucks," quickly think of a positive image, such as the first crocuses blooming on a sunny spring day.
4. Avoid converting others.
When trapped in a toxic group of complainers at a social event, for example, don't suggest that they cheer up or stop gossiping. Simply choose silence and let their words bounce off you a while you think of something pleasant. If you try to stop them, you may end up alienating yourself and becoming a target.
5. Distance yourself from complainers.
When people around you start whining and being miserable, try to excuse yourself if you can, and go outside in the fresh air, if possible. Fill up your mind with positive images and thoughts before returning inside. You have to take this seriously, because negative people can and will pull you down into their quicksand.
6. Wear an invisible shield.
Imagine that an invisible shield like a glass cloak made of positive energy descends from the sky and lightly covers your whole body. You can see perfectly well through it but it protects you from others' negative words and emotions. This technique is used by professional athletes to deflect the negative energy of a hostile crowd.
7. Create a mental oasis.
Mentally retreat to a private, special place in your imagination that's relaxing and calm. Visualize a peaceful setting, such as a sunny trail next to a meadow brook, or a sailboat on a lake. When you're stuck with someone who's being toxic, you can go to your oasis while appearing to listen.
8. Bat it right back.
When you're pressed against a wall while someone rants about all the injustices in his life, bat the negativity back at the person by saying, "So what do you intend to do about it?" In most cases, complainers don't want a solution, nor do they want sympathy. They just want to vent, and this tactic will stop them in their tracks.
9. Forgive yourself.
Everyone complains sometimes. Your favorite team loses. Your computer crashes. Deadlines pile up. It's human to vent once in a while. Be kind to yourself after a lapse into victimhood and complaining — and then start afresh. The less frequently you complain, the more time will pass between lapses into negativity. This is how rewiring the brain works.