The Science behind Positive Affirmations

What are Positive Affirmations?

Positive affirmations are empowering statements, mantras, definitions, phrases that can be used to change disempowering negative statements, definitions, mantras or phrases.

For example, a disempowering statement is “I always procrastinate“. A positive affirmation to reframe this would be “I show compassion to myself as I clarify what I need to do and I get it done”

It is important to be self aware to identify what some of the core negative self talk and then use positive affirmations to reframe the negative self talk.

Even without realising the extent of the self talk, the real value of using positive affirmations is to rewire the widespread negative beliefs systems that we often do not realise we hold, at the deep subconscious level.

How to practice Positive Affirmations

Practicing positive affirmations starts with writing down the list of empowering statements about your preferred reality or experience, in as many areas of your life as you wish. Hold a positive intention around each statement. Believe in the possibility of them coming true for YOU. This is the emotional charge that goes with the affirmation when you then practice them daily. You can say the statements out loud, subliminal audios or make a recording of your list and listen to the recording. The spoken word reverberates with your inner child. Subliminal audios which have the statements being repeated at a lower volume, also circumvent the doubts in the conscious mind. Do this daily and you are practicing positive affirmations.

As a tool, this involves no funds and very little time each day. It can be extremely simple and powerful.

If you frequently find yourself getting caught up in negative self-talk, positive affirmations can be used to combat these often subconscious patterns and replace them with more adaptive narratives.

Is There Science Behind Them?

Science, yes. Magic, no. Positive affirmations require regular practice if you want to make lasting, long-term changes to the ways that you think and feel. The good news is that the practice and popularity of positive affirmations are based on widely accepted and well-established psychological theory.

The Psychological Theory Behind Positive Affirmations

One of the key psychological theories behind positive affirmations is self-affirmation theory (Steele, 1988). So, yes, there are empirical studies based on the idea that we can maintain our sense of self-integrity by telling ourselves (or affirming) what we believe in positive ways.

Very briefly, self-integrity relates to our self efficacy, our perceived ability to control moral outcomes and respond flexibly when our self-concept is threatened (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). So, we as humans are motivated to protect ourselves from these threats by maintaining our self-integrity.

Self-Identity and Self-Affirmation

Self-affirmation theory has three key ideas underpinning it. They are worth having in mind if we are to understand how positive affirmations work according to the theory.

First, through self-affirmation, we keep up a global narrative about ourselves. In this narrative, we are flexible, moral, and capable of adapting to different circumstances. This makes up our self-identity (Cohen & Sherman, 2014).

Self-identity (which we’re seeking to maintain, as mentioned before) is not the same as having a rigid and strictly defined self-concept. Instead of viewing ourselves in one “fixed” way, say as a “student” or a “son”, our self-identity can be flexible. We can see ourselves as adopting a range of different identities and roles. This means we can define success in different ways, too.

Why is this a good thing? Because it means we can view different aspects of ourselves as being positive and can adapt to different situations much better (Aronson, 1969).

Secondly, self-affirmation theory argues that maintaining self-identity is not about being exceptional, perfect, or excellent (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). Rather, we just need to be competent and adequate in different areas that we personally value in order to be moral, flexible, and good (Steele, 1988).

Lastly, we maintain self-integrity by acting in ways that authentically merit acknowledgment and praise. In terms of positive affirmations, we don’t say something like “I am a responsible godmother” because we want to receive that praise. We say it because we want to deserve that praise for acting in ways that are consistent with that particular personal value.

A Look at the Research

The development of self-affirmation theory has led to neuroscientific research aimed at investigating whether we can see any changes in the brain when we self-affirm in positive ways.

There is MRI evidence suggesting that certain neural pathways are increased when people practice self-affirmation tasks (Cascio et al., 2016). If you want to be super specific, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex—involved in positive valuation and self-related information processing—becomes more active when we consider our personal values (Falk et al., 2015; Cascio et al., 2016).

The results of a study by Falk and colleagues suggest that when we choose to practice positive affirmations, we’re better able to view “otherwise-threatening information as more self-relevant and valuable” (2015: 1979). As we’ll see in a moment, this can have several benefits because it relates to how we process information about ourselves.

Benefits of Daily Affirmations

Now that we know more about the theories supporting positive affirmations, here are six examples of evidence from empirical studies that suggest that positive self-affirmation practices can be beneficial:

  1. Self-affirmations have been shown to decrease health-deteriorating stress (Sherman et al., 2009; Critcher & Dunning, 2015);

  2. Self-affirmations have been used effectively in interventions that led people to increase their physical behavior (Cooke et al., 2014);

  3. They may help us to perceive otherwise “threatening” messages with less resistance, including interventions (Logel & Cohen, 2012);

  4. They can make us less likely to dismiss harmful health messages, responding instead with the intention to change for the better (Harris et al., 2007) and to eat more fruit and vegetables (Epton & Harris, 2008);

  5. They have been linked positively to academic achievement by mitigating GPA decline in students who feel left out at college (Layous et al., 2017);

  6. Self-affirmation has been demonstrated to lower stress and rumination (Koole et al., 1999; Wiesenfeld et al., 2001).


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