Self-affirmation is the practice of expressing positivity about yourself. It can be stated aloud, said in your head, or written down. While some may scoff or assume that it’s pointless, science is proving that self-affirmation and positive thinking can have measurably positive effects on people.
What are the benefits of positive thinking?
So far, the clearest benefit to self-affirmation is its ability to encourage changes in health behavior.
When you’re told by a physician (or friend or family member) that you must make a life change, it’s not uncommon to become defensive. For instance, when your doctor tries to convince you to stop smoking, you stop listening or get irritated. If your aunt tells you that you need to lose weight, you might respond by getting upset or even binge-eating.
More receptive to health changes and advice
Self-affirmation and positive thinking, however, can make you more receptive to health advice. A team of researchers set out to get sedentary adults to be more active by utilizing self-affirmation. First they examined the brains of participants with imaging equipment while the participants were given health advice. In people who did a self-affirmation exercise prior to receiving health advice, a key part of the brain was more active. This part of the brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), is believed to be involved in processing self-relevance.
Additionally, the people who did self-affirmation did a better job of following the health advice and were more active in the next few months. In another experiment, text messages were sent to sedentary adults, encouraging them to stand up or do some sort of activity. When the health advice was paired with some form of affirmation, the people receiving the text message were more active.
Alter unhealthy habits
Self-affirmation, used in conjunction with health advice, can help facilitate changes in other areas, in addition to activity level. All of the following has a better chance of changing with positive thinking:
- Alcohol consumption
- Unsafe sex
- Cigarette smoking
- Caffeine consumption
- Poor diet
Increase regular medical screenings
People may also be more willing to follow through on medical screening and treatment if they participate in self-affirmation. This may be due to self-affirmation’s ability to help the brain accept changes more easily.
However, it may also be due to the simple fact that refocusing someone onto a positive topic (such as positive thinking) rather than a negative one (like the possibility of undesirable test results) can make him or her less likely to avoid threatening or scary information.
Improve task performance
You might also be able to perform some tasks better by doing self-affirmation.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a study on how well college students could perform problem-solving tasks. Unsurprisingly, since chronic stress can have serious negative impacts on mental and physical health, students who’d been suffering from chronic stress didn’t perform as well as those without stress.
Doing a self-affirmation exercise prior to the problem-solving tasks, though, made quite a difference. After some self-affirmation, the chronically stressed students were able to perform at the same level as the students without chronic stress.
In another study, two groups of people performed a simple, quick-response task. One group had done self-affirmation beforehand, but the other had not. When they got a task right, both groups had the same level of brain response. However, when they got the task wrong, the self-affirmation group had notably higher levels of brain response. According to the study’s authors, this suggests that doing self-affirmation may make people more aware of their own mistakes and able to correct those mistakes.
The power of positive thinking for chronic pain patients
Self-affirmation may also help people with chronic pain control their discomfort.
The many benefits associated with positive thinking, such as increased receptivity to health advice and more willingness to undergo medical tests or treatments, could have a serious benefit on pain levels. Increased receptivity to physicians’ advice might mean better adherence to medication instructions or more willingness to try an anti-inflammatory diet. More willingness to undergo tests or treatments could lead to better diagnoses and treatment.
Also, in the mentioned study with the college students, self-affirmation was able to reverse the effects of chronic stress on problem solving. Stress and pain are tightly connected and can have a strong influence on each other. Therefore, if positive thinking is able to counter some of the effects of chronic stress, it could also help lower pain levels.
Self-affirmation can also offer some potential relief during serious pain flares. In her blog Chronic Pain Life, Stephanie offers resources and suggestions to help people live with chronic pain. Many of her suggested pain-management techniques utilize mindfulness, meditation, or artistic outlets (such as photography or journaling).
In one blog post, she describes the affirmations she uses when suffering from intense pain, stating:
“I seriously couldn’t function without them. In a pain flare-up they prevent me from entering a spiral of negative thoughts that in the past led to depression and even suicidal thoughts. Sometimes I only have to repeat the affirmations a couple of times, while other times I have to read them over and over throughout the day. They have helped me make it through another moment, another hour, another day.”
How to practice more positive thinking
The last time you encountered a hectic workweek, opened yet another expensive repair bill, or suffered through a day of chronic pain, what did you think about? Although everyone experiences stress, not everyone handles it the same way.
Changing your thought process related to these events can reduce associated stress. Additionally, changing your perception can help uncover positive solutions and maybe even bring a little peace. This process of positive thinking takes time, so be patient with yourself. Here’s some ways to get started.
Practicing self-affirmations can be done in any way you want, as long as you end up feeling better. In many of the studies surrounding self-affirmation, the exercises involve arranging different topics into order of personal importance. Some of these topics might include:
Once you’ve figured out which topic is most important in your life, write (or simply think about) a couple sentences describing why it’s so important to you, as well as how you demonstrate this. For example, if family is most important in your life, you might write, “My family is important to me because I know they’re always there to support me. I demonstrate how important my family is to me by spending as much time as I can with them, even when I’m tired or hurting.”
If there’s something specific you’re unhappy about, write down a list of ways to change it. For example, you may wish you had a better connection with your colleagues, write down a list of present-tense sentences about what you can do to accomplish that – such as “I am courteous and patient to my coworkers,” or “When I ask how someone’s doing, I really listen to their answer.” You can repeat your affirmations to yourself as often as you want. If you practice meditation or breathing exercises, you can even incorporate your affirmations into your routine.
Take a few deep breaths
Life sometimes looks rosier after inhaling more oxygen. Deep, long breathing calms the body’s stress response, lowers the heart rate, and gives you something to focus on besides the stressor.
Remember that the worst thing rarely happens
A lot of stress comes not from what’s actually happening, but worries about what could happen, including worst-case scenarios. Think back over your life. How many times has the worst-case scenario actually happened?
If you find yourself ruminating on all of the potential disasters that could befall you should you fail to complete all the tasks on your list, take a deep breath. Pick one thing, the most important thing, and do that. When you feel overwhelmed, take a walk, listen to music, or engage in some other healthy outlet. Unless it’s life or death, it can wait.
Review the situation and analyze the things you can control and those you can’t
Has your boss completely overloaded you with work? Is your husband not helping with housework? Are tight finances stressing you out? Ask for help. Let the people affected know you’re overwhelmed, ask for a deadline extension, get help with washing dishes, or find a financial counselor. Asking for help can seem scary, but your mental well-being is more important.
With chronic stress, like any illness or disease, sometimes it helps to focus on what you do have. You’re alive, you have a beautiful beating heart, and you probably have family members and friends who love you. If you can walk, walk and feel your legs moving and enjoy the air on your skin.
Even under more serious stress, think about what you can control. Maybe you can exercise or eat better or try meditation. Nobody has complete control over their life, but everyone has some small step they can take right now to improve their circumstances and reduce stress.
And what you can’t control? Try to accept it and let go. Although easier said than done, greater acceptance brings peace, further lessening stress.
What tips do you have to think positive?