The Psychology of Affirmations

by Dr. Monica Blied

What are affirmations? 

Affirmations are positive phrases and statements that help to affirm and encourage oneself. You have likely heard or used affirmations in your own life. When you tell yourself “I can do this” before you give a presentation or when you let out a big sigh and gasp “I’m fine” after you slammed the brakes of your car from an unexpected stop, you are using affirmations to support yourself. 

Affirmations have become a very common technique in people’s self-care routines.  But why? Do words really have that much impact on how you feel? 

Why are affirmations effective?

Affirmations are effective at calming an anxious mind. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one of the most researched and effective interventions for combatting anxiety and depression, informs us that our thoughts (or what we tell ourselves) powerfully influence our emotions and behaviors. Mood issues can be prolonged and intensified when we are stuck in negative thought patterns.  Affirmations can serve to challenge negative automatic thoughts and rewire our brains to cue up more empowering cognitions. For affirmations to be most effective, repetition is key. Neurons that wire together, fire together. So, just as we can wire our brains for negativity with distorted and unhelpful thoughts, we can also rewire them for optimism and hope using the power of affirmations.

On a neuropsychological level, affirmations paired with deep breathing and tapping (i.e., Emotional Freedom Technique) will quiet down the rapid firing of our amygdala (our brain’s fear center) and limbic system (our “emotion brain”). At the same time, this process activates our body’s parasympathetic nervous system (the body’s “relaxation system” or the “rest and digest/feed and breed” part of our autonomic nervous system), which in turn lowers levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and helps to fight inflammation, lower blood pressure, and other negative effects of stress. Repeating our affirmations is also important because repeated thoughts will become habituated into our thought process and require less conscious effort.

How do you effectively use affirmations? 

First, you should think about what areas in your life you want to focus your affirmations on. Maybe you are struggling with body issues. Or maybe you are having a lot of self-doubts. Your affirmations should address those areas of difficulty in your life in order to be most effective.

Second, you should find phrases and statements that are meaningful to you. Intuitively, you may have a phrase that comes to mind that you already use to soothe yourself. Or, you may want to consider an inspirational quote from your favorite movie, show, or song that makes you feel supported and encouraged. Also, you may want to consider having an affirmation that comes from your spirituality. I use affirmations that are congruent with my faith and value systems. I say them and write them down on a sticky note on my mirror. Here are some examples of affirmations I use:

  • I am enough
  • I am fearfully and wonderfully made
  • I am a masterpiece
  • Even if I cannot finish everything on my task list, I will give myself grace. I am a human BEing, not a human doing.
  • All things work together for good, for those who Love the Lord and are called according to His purposes
  • I am more than a conqueror

You may want to also have affirmations that help reframe unhelpful thoughts. If you find yourself asking a whole lot of “what if” statements, you should combat those negative thoughts with “even if” and finish the sentence with what you know is true about you. For instance, your negative thought may be, “What if I fail my biology test?” You can challenge that thought with, “Even if I fail this test, I know I am a hard-working student and that I can study and do well on the next tests.” 

Lastly, you should consider having a time and place for your affirmations. If you find yourself most anxious before bed, you may want to repeat your affirmations in the evening. Whatever times you choose, you should try to be consistent so that you can help make your affirmations a long-term habit. 

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