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The Science Behind Affirmations

The Science Behind Affirmations

There is a lot of scientific evidence which indicates that the way that we think and the thoughts that repeatedly loop have a massive impact on our lives. What if we were able to positively influence our way of thinking through small daily changes? Here at Bloom, the focus is on creating illustrations and artwork which have a positive impact on mental health, and to also promote self-compassion, encouragement and inspiration. This is achieved through the use of positive affirmations.

Positive affirmations are a simple yet highly effective tool for creating lasting positive change. This post aims to address just why they are so useful, whilst also exploring the science behind them. 

What are positive affirmations?

A positive affirmation is a statement, usually written in the first person, which reinforces a positive, uplifting, or inspirational message. They are used to replace negative self-talk or ways of thinking. They can be spoken out loud, written down, listened to, or integrated with everyday objects (our phone wallpaper, for example).

When repeated regularly, positive affirmations can have a huge impact. Through conscious effort, we can begin to rewire limiting beliefs and positively alter our self-image. Some of the most powerful positive affirmations begin with the phrase ‘I am’. This is because to say that we ARE already the thing we wish to become creates the least distance between where we currently are and our desired reality. 

Do they work?

To summarise, yes! Although by no means the full solution, affirmations have been proven to help increase levels of self-worth and self-esteem, whilst reducing levels of anxiety and depression.

They can be used alone and also be combined with other self-help techniques and practices, for example, meditation and hypnosis. It is also important to note that for diagnosed mental conditions, it is always best to work with a therapist or healthcare professional. 

Self‐affirmation theory (Aronson et al., 1999; Sherman & Cohen, 2002; Steele, 1988) 

Self affirmation theory is based on the idea that we are motivated to maintain and protect our integrity. This means that on both a conscious and subconscious level, we want to see ourselves as whole and good people. If we reflect on values that are personally relevant, we are less likely to experience stress when we are confronted with information that threatens our sense of self. If we repeatedly use positive affirmations that resonate with us, our minds are wired to believe that this is true, as it affirms our integrity and whole self of self. This means that our minds are primed to accept and integrate positive affirmations that reinforce the idea that we are good, whole, and morally upstanding people. 

Selective Attention Theory (Broadbent, 1958)

We are bombarded with a huge amount of information every single day through various sources. Our brain and senses have a big task in terms of processing all this information. Selective attention is a process whereby our brain decides which information to pay attention to whilst discarding the rest. Although this process is automatic, we are able to focus our attention on the information that is important to us. By consciously using affirmations, we are directing our brain’s resources to process this, prioritising positive, uplifting, and encouraging information. We are priming our brains to pick up on these attributes as we go about our daily lives, when before they might have unconsciously filtered out. 

Neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to reorganise neural networks, from forming completely new networks to strengthening existing ones. It is a relatively recent discovery, as the traditional view used to be that our brains were fully formed after reaching adulthood.

The neuroscientist Donald Webb famously said “neurons that fire together, wire together”, demonstrating that changing the brain on a physical level is possible. This means if we consistently practice a new skill (repetition is essential here), we are able to strengthen the neural networks and what once was difficult becomes easy.

Using affirmations might seem strange at first, but with enough implementation, we can change our way of thinking to include more positivity, optimism, and gratitude. 

Affirmations and the reward system

A study conducted by Cascio et al. (2016) revealed many positive effects of self affirmation. The first finding was that affirmations light up parts of the brain associated with reward.

The parts of the brain associated with pleasure, such as eating your favourite food or enjoying your favorite hobby, also activate during the use of affirmations. With continued use, affirmations can be associated with doing something highly valuable and rewarding.

Furthermore, the study highlighted the effects of affirmations used fMRI scans which displayed heightened activity in key regions of the brain associated with self-related processing. This is linked to our ability to regulate our emotions and process negative, painful or threatening information. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy focused on challenging the way we think and behave. It is based on the concept that thoughts, feelings, and actions are interconnected and when we identify our negative thinking patterns, we are able to change them.

Cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing (exaggerating the importance of negative events or minimising the importance of positive events) can be challenged using positive affirmations.

An example of this would be challenging a negative thought such as ‘I will never recover from heartbreak’ with the affirmation ‘I accept my feelings and allow myself the space to process them.’

This affirmation introduces the possibility of moving through a difficult time, rather than accepting that the feelings are permanent and change is not possible. 

Conclusion

Affirmations are a highly effective tool with lots of positive effects, such as increasing self-esteem and decreasing feelings of low self-worth. A number of studies in the fields of neuroscience and psychology have demonstrated their effectiveness.

Although by no means the full solution or a substitute for medical care, positive affirmations are a great way of increasing positive thoughts and feelings and changing our lives for the better.

Do you use affirmations on a regular basis? Would you like to incorporate them into your life? Make sure to look at our Instagram page for the latest affirmations.