Affirming Success under Stress

“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” This famous line, spoken by Henry Ford, has been applied in psychology and self-improvement arenas for decades. Self-affirmations are positive words of encouragement that people can say to themselves, out loud or silently. They have been used in various ways to help people overcome, achieve, and persist at many different things in life. However, few clinical studies have been conducted to see if self-affirmations actually help people with specific cognitive tasks while they are under stress.

Students face stressful situations throughout their academic careers. Taking tests, giving speeches, working with others, completing research papers — all of these events can create stress for students. Some students perform well with relatively few problems. Others do not. Stress can create anxiety and even panic. Many students who experience stress see significant decreases in their academic performance as a result.

J. David Creswell of the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania wanted to see if self-affirmations helped these students. In a recent study, Creswell evaluated the academic performance of 80 college students who had experienced stress in the month prior to entering the study. The students were assigned to either a self-affirmation condition or a control condition and then required to complete a timed exam that entailed problem solving and concentration. Creswell found that the students who practiced self-affirmations did much better on the exam than the control group students.

The results of this study suggest that self-affirmations may be useful in academic settings. For college students, especially those who perform poorly when under stress, using this technique can potentially increase their self-esteem, confidence, and even academic results. At-risk students, including those from culturally diverse groups, who demonstrate vulnerabilities to stress could benefit greatly from a method such as this. Creswell even thinks that initiating this type of program at the beginning of the school year could strengthen students’ confidence and reduce the negative effects of stress throughout the academic year. He added, “The present research contributes to a broader effort at understanding how stress management approaches can facilitate problem-solving performance under stress.”

Creswell, J.D., Dutcher, J.M., Klein, W.M.P., Harris, P.R., Levine, J.M. (2013). Self-affirmation improves problem solving under stress. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62593. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062593

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  • stefan

    May 6th, 2013 at 4:45 PM

    This could be a whole lot easier said than don.e.

    There are many college age students who do not feel worthy or good enough about themselves to affirm their successes. They focus on the negative oover the positive. They feel that nothing that they can do will measure up, and this is where we need to start.

    We have to give them the strength to know that they are good, that it is a good thing to highlight the positive things that they are doing and actually show them how to find something good even among what they may view as the mundane and ordinary.

  • Kelly

    May 6th, 2013 at 9:23 PM

    Just saying I’m good or I can do it is not enough.You need to truly believe you can.Even in the face of stress.I have been in both sides-said it with no conviction and said it with conviction.No prizes for guessing which worked better.So its not simply about saying it to yourself but believing you are good enough that works the magic.

  • Jon

    May 7th, 2013 at 3:25 AM

    doesn’t have to be just in academic settings
    positive affirmations are important no matter where you are in life
    they help in school, in your job, and probably even your marriage
    always helps when you can look at the glass half full

  • Nancy T

    May 7th, 2013 at 11:37 AM

    If the teachers are giving the students something to feel good about, then guess what? That can go a long way toward helping them ntake pride in their work and strive to achieve the standards that are being set for them. I most cases if you set the bar for expectation high, most kids are going to want to work terribly hard to meet that bar, or even exceed.

  • PE

    May 7th, 2013 at 12:39 PM


  • Sally

    May 11th, 2013 at 10:09 AM

    Positive affirmations work if the person truly believes then. It can be powerful in reframing our irrational thought patterns that lead to self defeating behaviors.

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