Affirmations are positive statements that are often used to combat negative self-perceptions or enhance focus on personal goals. Affirmations also tend to foster the expectation of success. Often, affirmations address a specific concern or fundamental self-talk theme. As an example, someone struggling with weight concerns may have frequent, albeit self-defeating thoughts such as, “I am never going to be able to lose/gain weight” or “My body is my enemy.”
Self-critical, pessimistic statements can make it more difficult to stick with goals, especially during the expectable minor setbacks most people experience on the road to success. In essence, habitual negative self-statements can erode self-confidence and become self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.
How Affirmations Can Be Employed in Daily Life
Affirmations can serve as an important tool for staying on track and staving off feelings of discouragement. To use the previous example, an affirmation to address anxiety or pessimism around weight concerns could be, “Each day, I am one step closer to achieving my healthiest weight.” If the negative self-talk is more generalized or self-critical, one might create an affirmation such as, “I partner with my body in keeping myself well.” An affirmation that is counter to negative feelings or beliefs related to exercise is, “It feels wonderful to eat well and move my body.”
Again, a productive affirmation is specifically related to a positive goal; the opposite of what the negative self-talk says; and helps one imagine a successful outcome.
Affirmations Present and Future
Although affirmations are commonly phrased in the present tense (to foster a feeling of these statements already being true), affirming statements can also be combined with guided or self-directed imagery to focus on future success. This technique is actually used in hypnosis and self-hypnosis, and is referred to as “future progression.” Future progression imagery involves creating the multisensory experience of being in that moment when one has already achieved a future goal, even though the actual imagery is happening within oneself, in the present moment.
How Affirmations Work
Although crafting affirmations can be straightforward, recent research has found affirmations effectively increase feelings of well-being and improve the likelihood of making good choices. As you’ve probably noticed, when under stress, most people are more vulnerable to self-doubt or feeling overwhelmed in general. Affirmations appear to work by reminding us of personal resources beyond what we notice when we are discouraged. Relatedly, affirmations seem to help us to reflect on our core values and draw upon the positive personal experiences we’ve had.
Affirmations and the Brain
Several different brain regions are thought to be involved in the benefits seen related to engaging in affirmations. For example, in previous studies, the ventral striatum and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex have been linked to assigning a positive value to something (such as achieving a goal) and viewing it as a reward. Increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex have been linked to focusing on one’s personal strengths. In addition, self-affirmations may work in part by engaging the anterior cingulate cortex and the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex to regulate emotions (staving off negative emotions, or remaining more objective) when faced with difficult situations.
In a recent study, researchers sought to shed light on the brain activity of 67 sedentary participants during a self-affirmation task. For this study, the participants first were asked to rank a list of eight values, such as creativity, relationships with loved ones, religious values, and so forth.
Although crafting affirmations can be straightforward, recent research has found affirmations effectively increase feelings of well-being and improve the likelihood of making good choices.
One week later, while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), those in the affirmation condition were asked to reflect on their highest-ranked value. Those in the control condition were asked to reflect on the value they’d ranked lowest out of the eight. In each condition, participants were directed to recall a time in the past that was positively associated with the value they were focusing on (having fun with family and friends, for example), and then imagine a time in the future when they would also experience something positive related to that same value. In both affirmation and control groups, participants were also presented with past- and future-oriented statements related to everyday, emotionally neutral events such as charging a cell phone.
Participants in both groups were then exposed to health-related messages encouraging increased physical activity and decreased sedentary behavior. The team also looked at brain activity in regions linked to positive valuation and reward, self-related processing (such as positive self-worth), and emotion regulation.
The team found that those in the affirmation condition displayed significantly greater activity in the positive valuation and reward network (ventral striatum [VS] and ventral medial prefrontal cortex [VMPC]) when engaging in the affirmation as opposed to imagining the everyday scenario. The VS and VMPC are associated with expecting and receiving some type of reward. The reward can be something primary, such as food, or abstract, such as something personally meaningful. Increased activity in these areas was also associated with decreased sedentary behavior going forward. Furthermore, the team’s findings suggest affirmations may have an even stronger effect on brain-related activity, as this pertains to future decisions (as opposed to past events).
Although their study did not directly address this question, the researchers speculated, based on data from other studies, that affirmations that are prosocial and self-transcendent are more strongly linked to later positive behaviors than those affirmations that are primarily self-serving.
Another finding from this study was that future-oriented affirmations activated the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex. These brain regions are associated with self-insight, reflecting on one’s preferences and motivations, and imagining personally relevant future as well as remembering past events. Increased activity in the MPFC specifically is associated with imagining positive, but not negative, future events.
To summarize, previous research has shown links between positive affirmations and increased activity in brain areas linked to positive self-worth, viewing an outcome as positive and rewarding, and the ability to regulate one’s emotions. In this most recent study, affirmations that were consistent with participants’ personal values and focused on imaging having positive experiences related to these values at a future time were linked to positive changes in behavior one month later.
How to Incorporate Affirmations Into Your Life
There are a number of easy, free-to-low-cost ways to use affirmations to help you make positive change. A quick internet search will reveal an abundance of audio programs featuring positive affirmations and imagery, but you can also make your own. Here are some suggestions:
- Set aside some quiet time to engage in this exercise.
- Write a list of some goals that you’d like to achieve. Make the list simple, specific, and concrete.
- Pick one goal to start. You are probably more likely to stick with a goal that is consistent with your personal values rather than one someone else sets for you.
- Note any negative thoughts you tend to have when you try to focus on your goal.
- For each negative statement, write a positive statement that is the opposite of the negative self-talk. Make the statements short and to the point.
- Even if the goal is for some time in the future, write the positive statements as if they are already true (e.g., “I enjoy moving my body and feeling healthy” or “Each day, I feel stronger, happier, and healthier.”).
- Recall a specific time in your life when each statement rang true for you. Remember, it’s not about recalling a time when things were perfect.
- For each affirmation, vividly envision the future goal as already being true. Imagine how your body feels, envision how your life or health will have changed, and how terrific it feels to have achieved something meaningful to you. Use as many of your senses as you can to engage in this imagery.
- Repeat each individual affirmation, silently or out loud. Breathe.
- Set aside a few minutes to meditate on your affirmations each day. You can even record yourself saying each positive statement, and play this back to yourself.
Cascio, C. N., O’Donnell, M. B., Tinney, F. J., Lieberman, M. D., Taylor, S. E., Strecher, V. J., & Falk, E. B. (2016). Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 11(4), 621–629.
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