- Positive affirmations may help people to challenge negative self-talk or self-sabotaging behaviour.
- Research indicates that positive affirmations may activate your brain’s reward centres.
- Dr Bec recommends practising self-compassion by giving yourself the same kindness and care that you’d give a good friend.
You’ve had a long day, you get into bed and your head hits the pillow. Suddenly, bam! Cue the racing thoughts. Then, the next day, you can feel the negative thoughts creeping in.
What if you could turn those negative thoughts on their head, and actually change what you believe? That’s exactly how many people use positive affirmations – often as part of a mindfulness or mental wellbeing routine.
But what exactly ARE positive affirmations? Do they actually work? Can they genuinely help with mild anxiety? We asked Consultant Psychologist Dr Bec Jackson for her take on the subject.
What are positive affirmations?
So what does the word ‘affirmation’ actually mean?
As you’d expect, definitions vary. Macquarie Dictionary defines an affirmation as “a statement or phrase intended to be repeated aloud or in one's mind in order to induce a positive state of mind.”
Meanwhile, one study into how affirmations work describes them as “acts that affirm one’s self-worth, often by having individuals reflect on core values”.
Positive affirmations may help people to challenge negative self-talk or self-sabotaging behaviour that results from stress, unexpected life speed bumps, fear and insecurities. Like meditation, repeating affirmations may have a calming effect on the mind, especially if you combine it with slow breathing techniques.
Most positive affirmations begin with the word “I”, and are written in present tense. Many people repeat them out loud to reinforce positive thought patterns and behaviours.
Here are a few examples of positive affirmations that might help with mild anxiety:
- “I try my best“
- “I am safe“
- “As I relax, anxiety flows out“
- “I am enough“
- “As I breathe, I release tension“
- “I am resilient“
- “I choose to feel calm“
When you’re feeling anxiety starting to build, the thought of telling yourself that you’re calm may seem strange. But before you dismiss positive affirmations outright, let’s dig into the science behind them.
Research has shown that practising affirmations may activate your brain’s reward centres.
How positive affirmations might work
Wondering whether affirmations really work? Here are two ways that the science suggests they might be effective:
Self-affirmation theory looks at how people adapt to information or experiences that threaten their self-integrity. One element of this is that people want to maintain a positive self-view, and threats to this view can create resistance.
So positive affirmations might help by encouraging you to reflect on sources of self-worth, and may as a result, “decrease stress, increase wellbeing, improve academic performance and make people more open to behaviour change.”
2.Self-affirmation and your brain’s pleasure centres
Using fMRI imaging, the self-affirmation study above showed that affirmations might also activate your brain’s reward centres. That means they may give you a spike of pleasure, much like eating your favourite food would.
Give yourself the same kindness and care that you would a good friend
A psychologist’s guide to daily positive affirmations
Another way to use positive affirmations, Dr Bec tells us, is to repeat statements as “thoughts of kindness” towards yourself and people around you. She learned this technique from Dr Kirstin Neff’s mindful self-compassion training, which focuses on showing yourself the same kindness and care that you’d show to a good friend.
To help with anxiety, she suggests daily positive affirmations such as:
- “May I be calm“
- “May I be present“
- “May I be here - now - in this moment“
- “May I have peace“
- “May I be well“
- “May I feel rested“
“I find this format works really well for me,” Dr Bec adds. “I can take some deep breaths and say each affirmation.” She also changes them up depending on how her day is going.
During particularly uncertain times, she also recommends trying the classic:
- “This shall pass, just breathe“
You can also put positive affirmations out into the world for your loved ones. To do this, Dr Bec says, bring the person to mind, take some mindful breaths and say:
- “May you be well“
- “May you be calm“
- “May you find peace“
And no matter when or where you practise your affirmations, repetition is key.
Dr Bec says you can do them as part of your morning routine, during your daily walk, while you’re cooking dinner or just before you go to sleep.
There’s no one perfect method: just make sure the affirmations are meaningful to you.
Saying a positive affirmation may light up the same brain circuits that give you pleasure
Accentuating positive self-talk
While the neuroscience is encouraging, positive affirmations aren’t miracle workers. For example, they won’t magically relieve all your stress or fix serious mental wellness issues. Additionally, affirmations might not work for everyone.
However, positive affirmations may help people to challenge negative self-talk or self-sabotaging behaviour.
If you’re experiencing anything more than mild anxiety, or you don’t find that positive affirmations help, it’s worth speaking to your local GP or other health professional.
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Dr Bec Jackson is a Consultant Psychologist with 20 years’ experience across clinical psychology, academia, therapy and education in clinical, forensic and organisational psychology.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board November 2021.