Toxic negativity can “spread” within social circles
Toxic negativity can “spread” within social circles, a landmark study shows, highlighting the potential for toxic negativity to permeate people’s emotions. Image Credit: Andrea Piacquadio, Alycia Fung | Pexels


  • Toxic people aren't just emotionally draining; they can also negatively impact your brain function.
  • Toxic negativity is seen behind events related to cardiovascular disease.
  • This mindset arises from a pervasive attitude that saps motivation, optimism.

“This pool is OK, but it’s not Olympic-size."

"The view from our apartnment is nice, but it’s obstructed (even if only slightly)."

"The cost of power is too expensive, it’s a rip-off."

"Buses honk all the time... Everything is upside down... The weather is bad... There’s no hope for easing the traffic mess... The waiters are rude.... The powerlines dangle from the posts.”

In life, there’s plenty of things to complain about.

But toxic negativity is real, and it’s a corrosive cloud. Do you know someone who constantly whines like a crybaby about everything?

Then avoid him/her like a plague. But what if you're the one who has this deadly attitude?

Toxic negativity defined

Negativity can be a natural human response to challenges, but there’s a point where negativity transforms into something more harmful: toxic negativity.

Toxic negativity is different from just feeling negative. It's a pattern of behaviour where someone consistently focuses on the worst aspects of a situation and brings others down with their pessimism.

It’s persistent pessimism. It’s like a virus that eats you up inside.

Even short bursts of stress can hinder the effectiveness of neurons in the hippocampus, a crucial area for memory and reasoning.

Two people fighting
Few people realise that emotions (negative or positive) are highly contagious, like a well-adapted virus.

When does negativity become toxic?

Here's a checklist and tell-tale signs of toxic negativity:

  • Making negative comments about others all the time.
  • Constant complaining with no effort to find solutions.
  • Always expecting the worst outcome.
  • Dismissive of positive aspects or hopeful ideas.
  • Diminishing others' positivity.
  • Feeling like a victim.
  • Draining the energy of those around you.

Toxic negativity can be draining for the people around them. It can create a sense of helplessness and discourage others from trying, according to a number of studies.

What researchers found:

Few people realise that emotions are highly contagious, like a well-adapted virus. A 2016 study published in the highly-respected journal PLOS One explored the emotional “contagion” within social networks.

The longitudinal analysis, titled “The Contagious Effects of Emotions in Social Networks”, monitored the moods of participants through social media updates.

What researchers found: negative emotions expressed by friends significantly increased the likelihood of experiencing negative emotions themselves.

This suggests that negativity can “spread” within social circles, highlighting the potential for toxic negativity to permeate people’s emotions.

Another study published in the American Journal of Public Health, took a different approach, examining the positive side of the emotional spectrum.

In the study (titled “Optimism and Cardiovascular Disease: Is There a Causal Protective Relationship?”) researchers found a link between optimism and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Detrimental health effects

This suggests that negativity, including the persistent negativity associated with toxic people, may have a detrimental impact on physical health as well as mental well-being.

Toxic people defy logic. Some are blissfully unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them, and others seem to derive satisfaction from creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons.

- Dr Travis Bradberry, author

On the flipside, a British study with nearly 8,000 participants found those with higher optimism and emotional vitality had a 20-30 per cent reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) compared to those with lower levels. This suggests positive emotions might play a role in preventing cardiovascular issues.

Toxic negativity
Studies highlight the various ways toxic negativity can influence our lives, from increasing feelings of loneliness and depression to impacting physical health and spreading negativity within our social circles.

“Toxic people defy logic,” writes Dr. Travis Bradberry, author of the #1 bestseller Emotional Intelligence Habits.

“Some are blissfully unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them, and others seem to derive satisfaction from creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons,” he adds.

Effects on the brain

Research from Friedrich Schiller University in Germany shows just how serious toxic people are.

They found that exposure to stimuli that cause strong negative emotions — the same kind of exposure you get when dealing with toxic people — caused subjects’ brains to have a massive stress response.

Whether it's negativity, cruelty, the victim syndrome, or just a grim determination to stay pessimistic, toxic people drive your brain into a stressed-out state.

Dr Bradberry suggests they should be avoided at all costs.

“Exposure to even a few days of stress compromises the effectiveness of neurons in the hippocampus, an important brain area responsible for reasoning and memory,” explains Dr Bradberry.

“Weeks of stress cause reversible damage to brain cells, and months of stress can permanently destroy them. Toxic people don’t just make you miserable — they’re really hard on your brain.”

• Pay attention to how you talk about yourself and the world around you.

• Notice how your negativity affects your mood and the mood of those around you.

• Consider if your negativity is stopping you from taking action or moving forward.

• If you recognise these signs in yourself, don't worry. There are steps you can take to become more positive.

How to combat toxic negativity

#1. Recognise it in ourselves, and those around us.

Negativity can strain relationships. Constant negativity can feel draining and isolating, pushing loved ones away. The damage of toxic negativity goes beyond dampened spirits. It can cripple our self-belief, making us shy away from opportunities.

When negativity becomes a constant companion, it's time for a shift.

#2. Challenge negative thoughts.

This is an important mental exercise, which is immensely helpful: Actively challenge negative thoughts and focus on the positive, however small, which can be a powerful antidote.

#3. Avoid negative people.

This is easier said than done, but doable. When faced with obstacles, a toxically negative mindset convinces us they’re insurmountable, leading to inaction and missed chances. Surround yourself with supportive, optimistic people, who can help chip away at the cloud of negativity.

Restrain yourself from coming anywhere
Restrain yourself from coming anywhere near a squawker. If you realise you're a squawker yourself, life is too short to waste it on bellyaching, grumbling, being a crybaby... Image Credit: Pexels

#4. Choose to be positive, optimistic.

Toxic negativity is a choice. By choosing to focus on solutions and cultivate a growth mindset, we can break free from its grip. Remember, behind the clouds, the sun is always shining. It's up to us to choose to focus on the light.

#5. Stop complaining, do something about it.

It turns out human complaints are endless. Terrible traffic and pollution in your city? Move to the countrysides, or a place where life is less stressful. The flipside, there’s so much to be grateful for in our life – if we only, and really, look around. Do a daily journal of what you’re thankful for.

“As important as it is to learn how to deal with different kinds of people, truly toxic people will never be worth your time and energy — and they take a lot of each. Toxic people create unnecessary complexity, strife, and, worst of all, stress,” said Dr Bradberry.

Toxic negativity
There's a clear link between toxic negativity, chronic stress and brain health. Image Credit: Antoni Shkraba | Pexels

Types of toxic negativity

It’s not just about feeling down (which happens to all of us). But this is a pervasive attitude of someone that saps the motivation and optimism of those around the person who has it. These are some examples:

#1. Forever whiner

Imagine a friend constantly complaining about traffic, bad weather, or the futility of trying anything new.

Over time, their negativity becomes a cloud, casting a shadow over even the most positive experiences. This negativity is contagious, affecting the way we perceive and approach our own challenges.

#2. The deadly downer

This is the classic example. Imagine someone who finds a way to rain on everyone's parade. A friend excitedly shares their upcoming trip, and the deadly downer chimes in about potential flight delays, lost luggage, or even worse scenarios.

The negativity from a grumbler and excessive complainer steals the joy from the moment and makes others feel foolish for even daring to be optimistic.

#3. The self-fulfilling prophecy

This negativity focuses on personal limitations. Someone might constantly say things like, "I'm bad at public speaking" or "I'll never be successful." Believing these statements as absolute truths hinders them from even trying. This negativity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the lack of effort reinforces their negative beliefs.

#4. The discounting dismantler

This negativity targets other people's achievements. When someone shares good news, the Dismantler might downplay it with comments like, “It's not a big deal” or “Anyone could have done that” or "Someone else has done this three time over." This negativity undermines the other person's effort and creates a sense of competition rather than celebration.