October 15, 2020

Does Science Validate Affirmation?

If you read The Weekly Practice issue on gratitude, you may remember that the things we think about, and the way in which we think, impact our health.

Practices like expressions of gratitude offer a number of benefits – including giving us power to break habituations and allowing our brain to release a feel-good surge of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and nerepinephrine. 

And, thanks to our brain’s plasticity, it can literally change our brain communication pathways, chemistry and, therefore, even our mood. That’s something we can ALL be grateful for these days!

What that really means is that we have scientific proof that what we say, do, and think impacts our mood — and our health!

Now, just a PSA, before we go ANY further. I’m not saying that our thoughts can act in isolation to “cure” things like depression or anxiety. There’s a whole lot of power to our thoughts, but if you are seeking to explore alternative options for anxiety or depression, you will likely want to start by looking at your gut health and diet.

That may sound like some crazy woo-woo stuff, but you may be surprised at how much research and scholarship is now being built around this. And I am HERE for it! More on that at a later day.

Anyway– If what we say, think, and do has the power to shift our mood and health (check out this about how your thoughts can change your genes), then maybe we could give the concept of affirmations a chance. I don’t know about you, but as a skeptic, I’ve always quibbled with the effectivity and legitimacy of affirmation. So what actually ARE affirmations? Affirmations are thoughts, or words that validate one’s self-worth, often by having an individual reflect on core values, which may give individuals a broader view of their self.

Now stay with me. I am just as much (if not more) of a skeptic than you when it comes to the “power of positive thinking”, and the line that it rides with spiritual bypassing. 

Hi, I'm Laura.

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Whenever anyone has told me to use affirmation to create a shift in my life, I couldn’t help but think of those so-called life coaches who tell you to recite “I AM RICH, I AM RICH, I AM RICH” over and over until you magically become rich — supposedly, without the sweat work.

Now, I’m not knocking the science of manifestation, but I am a realist, and as such I believe we all need to put in the sweat work to achieve our goals. Plain and simple.  

But because I’m a realist, this is not about manifesting.

Activating the reward centers of our brain

In fact, a study at Oxford University found that when a given affirmation was spoken verbally, the ventral striatum, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (the parts of our brain that trigger our positive response to things like an appetizing plate of food, seeing a photo that brings back memories, a beautiful flower, or the feeling when you embrace your partner) had significantly higher activation levels while viewed in fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) than those who were un-affirmed.

Besides the reward centers of the brain being activated, the study found that participants:

  • Had lower stress levels from reduced cortisol 
  • Had increased confidence and a sense of well-being
  • Exhibited improved work performance
  • Were more open to behavioral change

Woah, right? So maybe this affirmation stuff isn’t AS woo-woo as we thought. 

So how do we do the whole affirmation thing? 

An affirmation could be a simple phrase, or word that represents what you desire to embody. 

It’s most powerful when you write it down, and maybe even hang it up somewhere where you’ll see it with some frequency. (I find it best to do it first thing in the morning) using short and focused phrases, such as:

  • “I am resilient and comfortable in my own skin,”
  • “I am a powerful, passionate part of my team”, 
  • “Nothing stands in the way of my being a writer”

Later, after you get that promotion from your boss, instead of finding it to be “luck”, you may find yourself reflecting, oh that’s because I’m a powerful and passionate part of our team, and I’m comfortable in my own skin!

Let me leave you with the wise words of Muhammad Ali: “It’s the repetition of affirmation that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”

You deserve great things to happen, and the power is between your ears! 

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