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Stress

Do You Complain Too Much?

New research suggests that rethinking stress can curb your complaining problems.

Key points

  • People who constantly complain can alienate those around them and harm their own mental health.
  • Research suggests that the ability to estimate the challenges of the day ahead can improve well-being.
  • Preparing for daily challenges can also reduce the amount that people complain.

Without realizing when it all started, you might have become too much of a complainer. The toast is too crisp or soggy, it’s too cloudy every day, the people who you work with are incompetent, and your family isn’t living up to your expectations. When you look up information online, whether about a product, a service, or an on-demand workout routine, you scrutinize the one-star rather than five-star ratings. Even if there are no ratings, you enjoy delving into the lengthy negative commentaries provided by other complainers rather than the smiley face compliments of the easy to please.

You like to think of yourself as an optimistic person, and feel that people must surely enjoy being around you. However, one by one, all but your very closest relatives or romantic partner have begun to draw away from you. Perhaps, much to your surprise, you realize that three of your best friends arranged an online happy hour, but you weren’t invited. Why wouldn’t they want you there?

Before you rush on to complain about how insensitive and cliquish they are, it might be worthwhile to consider the possibility that, as the expression goes, “it’s you,” and not “them.” What has happened to change you from being the obvious choice for everyone’s party list to the outcast? Consider the possibility that you’ve just become, in psychological terms, an “aversive reinforcement.” People will do whatever they can to avoid you because they just don’t want to hear that constant litany of negative comments.

Research Links Daily Stress to the Tendency to Complain

It’s entirely possible that a switch was flipped to change your personality but, according to new research on stress, it’s also possible that your eternal grumpiness stems from the feeling that you just don't know how to deal with an unpredictable world.

University of Alabama’s Yi-Ren Wang and colleagues (2021) propose that it’s not just stress, but the inability to predict future stress that can interfere with your equanimity. As they note, “people are often inaccurate or biased at predicting their future,” and when it comes to stress, “being accurate at forecasting one’s stress level has a number of benefits for well-being and health.” The pandemic has certainly ushered in its share of uncertainty about the future, not the least of which involves dealing with constant change.

As Wang et al. propose, poor stress prediction is only made worse by an inability to gauge your own potential coping resources. By the time you’ve over-estimated stress and under-estimated coping, it’s no wonder you’ll be constantly on edge. At that point, you’ll be primed to focus on the negative in your life as each new day unfolds.

The purpose of the study was to test whether people’s daily predictions of stress would lead to greater negativity and the feeling of being on edge by the time the day actually ended. The 110 college student participants in their sample (average age of 20; 90% female) completed daily assessments via email (and/or text) to take one survey at 8:00 am and another survey at 8:00 pm. The study took place during the final three weeks of the semester, always known to be a stressful time, and lasted one week.

Testing Your Ability to Predict Daily Stress

According to Wang et al.’s prediction model, the experience of stress in these undergraduates would be affected in part by their overall resilience levels, measured by items such as “I tend to bounce back quickly after hard times.” Stress would also be affected by the characteristic ways in which respondents tended to cope, as assessed by these two items testing active coping: “ I’ve been concentrating my efforts on doing something about the situation I’m in,” and “I’ve been taking action to make the situation better.” These were the measures given at the start of the study to establish baseline moderators of daily stress.

Participants rated the amount of stress they expected to face that day with three items beginning: "Generally speaking, do you anticipate that your day is going to be…" They also completed a brief affect, or mood, scale. In the evening, participants completed the same mood rating scale, assessed their actual levels of stress, and indicated their experience of a range of health complaints from headache to stomach pain. A simple difference between anticipated and actual stress formed the measure of how accurate the students were in their morning stress level predictions.

Imagine what your data would look like if you were a participant in the Wang et al. study. Recall the beginning of the day before and ask yourself how bad you thought it was going to be. What, in fact, happened as the day progressed? Did someone ask you to complete a project that you hadn’t expected to do? Did you receive a bunch of (in your mind) irritating emails? Did someone fail to come through for you? By the end of the day, how did you feel? Did you have a few aches and pains that you couldn’t quite explain? What was your mood like?

As this exercise may have taught you, estimates of the day’s stress can differ from the actual experience of stress. But are you better off over- or under-predicting the stress about to hit you as your day begins?

Why It's Important to Learn to Predict Stress

When the researchers tracked daily stress prediction and well-being levels, it became apparent that what people expected to occur in the morning indeed had a bearing on their evening levels of well-being. Those whose estimates were wrong, and whose stress was higher than they anticipated, had the most negative outcomes at the end of the day both in terms of mood and health complaints.

Resilience also played a role in the relationship between predicted stress and well-being. People with greater resilience tended to overestimate the stress that awaited them that day, but they also judged their ability to cope as being sufficient to manage those challenges. As a result, even if the stress never materialized as much as they thought, they still felt confident in being able to overcome it.

Returning now to the question of how to be less of a complainer, the study suggests that you first try to build your own resilience and sense of control over the events in your life. These can help you then go on to wake up in the morning more prepared to face whatever the day has to offer. If the day is less stressful than you imagined, that’s great. However, if zingers keep coming your way beyond your expectations, your mood will eventually become worn down and with it, your patience. Everything will seem like a problem, a problem that you lack the ability to overcome.

As the authors suggest, misprediction of stress can be a double-edged sword: “overpredicting the upcoming negative experience may be an important protection when one does in fact experience the stressful event, whereas the same negative prediction bias may be unnecessarily disturbing without the exposure to actual stressors.” However, the danger of underpredicting is still greater than overpredicting your stress: "Underestimation errors were a powerful predictor of evening negative affect."

To sum up, moving from the dark to the bright side of your daily life by managing your stress expectations could become the key to being able to take more things in stride. Finding that balance between pessimism and optimism could set you on a course to reduce your stress and find that happy, fulfilling, medium.

LinkedIn image: Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock

References

Wang, Y., Black, K. J., & Martin, A. (2021). Antecedents and outcomes of daily anticipated stress and stress forecasting errors. Stress and Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress. doi: 10.1002/smi.3044,

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