The Mindset Shift That Could Help You Ditch Chronic Stress Once & For All

Written by Kaia Roman

Image by Ryan Ahern / Stocksy

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The latest findings in Gallup's 2019 Global Emotions Report are out, and it's official: Americans' levels of stress, worry, and anger have all increased since last year. According to the poll, more than half (55 percent) of us feel stressed "during much of the day," 45 percent feel worried, and 22 percent feel angry. In fact, stress in America is higher than in all but three countries in the world. It's even higher than stress in Chad, where violence and displacement have left 66 percent of the population in daily physical pain.

But why are Americans more stressed than residents of countries who have lower incomes, fewer possessions, and less access to education and resources than we do? Are we a country of chronic complainers? 

In my book, The Joy Plan, I set out to find an antidote to the stress and anxiety that plagues so many of us. Initially, I challenged myself to stop complaining for a week since I know that optimists literally see the world differently, according to studies. Then, a week became a month. And now, it has become a way of life, and I'm encouraging the masses to make it a part of theirs, too.

How we see the world is how we experience the world; the more we see the good, the more we feel the good, and the more good we will create for everyone around us.

How to recognize when you're complaining in the first place.

When we complain, we focus on what we don't want or don't like, and if we do it often enough, our brain is trained to look for things to complain about. It actually changes what we focus on, and we become primed to experience more of what we don't want in our lives.

But what, exactly, constitutes a complaint? A complaint is simply saying that you don't like the way something is. As hard as this is to believe, a complaint is actually just a perspective.

So, how can you tell if you're complaining? What if you're only stating a fact, such as the bus is late, or my coffee is cold? It all depends on how you feel about it. A complaint feels negative while a neutral statement has no emotional charge.

How to break the habit of complaining.

A habit is an action or thought that we repeat often enough for it to become automatic. Habits create neural pathways in the brain (like well-worn highways that your brain travels on repeatedly), and they can be hard to change. It's not surprising that complaining has become a habit for so many of us; our brains have a built-in negativity bias that predisposes us to remember negative input more readily than positive.

But not complaining can become a habit too—with willpower and practice. It takes repetition, dedication, and effort. And there are huge health benefits to making this choice! Optimism is a condition that can be trained in the brain. Studies show that optimists are happier, more creative, faster at solving problems, and have better health and longer lives than pessimists.

Ready to kick complaining to the curb? Here are five tips that can help:

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1. Catch yourself and switch it around. 

You may be surprised by how often you're complaining. This includes your words and your thoughts. Be in the process of actively speaking about what you want instead of what you don't want (this process is called "reframing"). The same goes for what you're thinking about. Have a stockpile of go-to happy thoughts to switch to. Or perhaps a favorite music playlist or pictures of loved ones. Change your mental state in any way that you can.

2. Find something to be grateful for. 

Gratitude releases dopamine and serotonin in the brain, which relax the body, reduce stress, and feel great. Gratitude is a highly effective way to switch your mental, emotional, and physical state fast. Train your brain to focus on gratitude by spending the first few minutes when you wake up in the morning thinking about things that you're grateful for, and do the same in the last few minutes before you fall asleep. Just as complaining trains your brain to look for more things to complain about, with a gratitude practice, you will be primed to look for things you're grateful for throughout your day.

3. Don't join others in their complaints. Moods are contagious.

We all know what it feels like after we've been around someone in a bad mood. And we know how others' joy can rub off on us, too. This actually happens in our brains. This is because our mirror neurons, specialized cells in the brain related to imitation, automatically mimic the facial expressions, voice tones, and even the emotions of the people around us. Be a positive influence, and others will follow. 

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4. See the good. 

Try to focus on what you're learning from the situation. It could be that you're getting clearer about what you like or don't like. Or maybe you're realizing you need to change the dynamic in a relationship you have. You get the idea; see the good in your current circumstances. Take deep breaths and release the tension you're holding in regards to the subject of your complaint. If it's a persistent complaint that you can't get out of your head, try getting some physical exercise to pump endorphins into your system and distracting yourself with something funny.

5. Question whether you have "happiness guilt." 

Some of us feel like we always have to complain about something. Can you relate? If so, you may want to explore where this limiting belief comes from and do some inner work to clear it.

 

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