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The Neuroscience of How Affirmations Help Your Mental HealthEvery minute of every day, your body is physically changing in response to the thoughts that run through your head. Just thinking about something causes your brain to send signals and release neurotransmitters. These chemicals control virtually all of your body’s functions, including your mood and feelings. Over time and with repetition, via neuroplasticity, it’s been proven that your thoughts change your brain, your cells, and even your genes.

For example, when people practice gratitude, they get a surge of rewarding neurotransmitters, like dopamine and norepinephrine, and experience a general uplift of the mind. In his book, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Norman Doidge tells of an experiment in which two groups exercised a finger muscle for four weeks. One group, which actually moved their fingers, increased muscle strength by 30 percent. The other group, who just visualized moving their fingers, increased muscle strength by 22 percent.

What you think, visualize, and say to yourself can change your body, brain, and life. One way to harness this power to help you is through affirmations. Studies suggest that positive affirmations can help us respond in a less defensive and resistant way when presented with life challenges. They are a mental health tool that can help you develop a healthy sense of self and build a more resilient brain.

What Is an Affirmation?

Affirmations, also called self-affirmations, are thoughts you intentionally come up with to support, encourage, and calm your brain and body. They can be positive statements used to challenge negative, depressing, or anxiety-producing thoughts and beliefs. They can also just be general supportive thoughts providing encouragement. Affirmations can be used to influence your thinking patterns, behavioral habits, health, and moods.

Your mind thinks in pictures to accompany words. The words in an affirmation, automatically and involuntarily, bring up related mental images. That’s why affirmations and visualization work well together. You can intentionally combine them for a powerful tool, but you don’t have to.

Affirmations Activate the Brain’s Reward Centers

One study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that affirmations activate the reward centers of the brain. These areas, specifically the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex,  are the same reward centers that respond to other pleasurable experiences, such as eating your favorite food or winning a prize. Your brain’s reward system can be quite powerful. For example, research shows that the reward circuits can decrease pain and help you maintain balance when stressed.

The study also discovered that saying affirmations increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate. These areas of the brain are connected to self-related processing. Science shows that increased self-related processing can act as a kind of emotional buffer to painful, negative, or threatening information.

The study also offered exciting new insight into the use of future-oriented affirmations. In each of the brain regions identified, the effects of self-affirmation were stronger when participants were given future-based prompts. For example, the statement “Think about a time in the future when you will experience career success,” created more self-affirming brain activity than “Think about your past career success.” Hence, doing self-affirmations in a future-oriented way gives the practice an extra boost.

Proven Benefits of Affirmations

Various scientific studies suggest that positive self-affirmation practices can be beneficial in many ways:

  1. Studies show that self-affirmations can decrease health-deteriorating stress.
  2. People have successfully increased their physical activity levels using self-affirmations in experiments.
  3. Affirmations have been shown to help people perceive “threatening” messages with less resistance. These results suggest that people can apply self-affirmation as a tool for coping with everyday challenges.
  4. Research shows that they can make a person less likely to dismiss harmful health messages. People were more likely to respond with the intention to change for the better.
  5. Students, who were contending with negative stereotypes in school because of their race, gender, or generational status, boosted their academic achievements in college using affirmations.
  6. Practicing self-affirmation has effectively lowered stress and rumination, both of which contribute to depression and anxiety.
  7. Affirmations can significantly increase feelings of hopefulness.
  8. In one study, a short affirmation exercise boosted the problem-solving abilities of “chronically stressed” subjects to the same level as those with low stress.
  9. Affirmations have been used to successfully treat people with low self-esteem, depression, and other mental health conditions.
  10. Evidence suggests that affirmations can help you perform better at work. According to researchers, spending just a few minutes thinking about your best qualities before a high-pressure meeting can calm your nerves, increase your confidence, and improve your chances of a successful outcome.

The Neuroscience of How Affirmations Help Your Mental Health

How to Use Affirmations

You can use affirmations in any situation where you’d like to see a positive change take place in your life. This might include when you want to:

  • Raise your confidence before an important event or meeting.
  • Diminish negative feelings such as anxiety, anger, or impatience.
  • Increase your self-esteem.
  • Find the motivation to keep going.
  • Improve your level of productivity.
  • Quit a bad habit.

Affirmations may be more effective when you pair them with other positive thinking and goal-setting techniques. For instance, as said above, affirmations work particularly well with visualizations. The power of affirmations lies in repeating them to yourself regularly and as needed. It’s useful to say them throughout your day, for example, when you engage in negative or anxious thoughts or find yourself in challenging emotional situations. While practicing affirmations, you will want to take slow, relaxing breaths. As you are aware of your breath in and out, focus on the affirmation and the feelings accompanying it. Enrich and internalize the experience.

Examples of Affirmations

Your affirmations are going to be unique to you and specific to the things you want to achieve, change, or address. The following examples can be adapted to fit your needs.

Affirmations to Help Relieve Anxiety

When you have anxiety, it’s important to deescalate anxiety-producing thought patterns rather than grow and encourage them. Affirmations can help. They can be used at any time, any place. Here’s a list of 72 positive affirmations that can be used for reassuring yourself. Here are a few examples:

  1. I am liberating myself from fear, judgment, and doubt.
  2. I choose to help myself with my thoughts.
  3. My anxiety does not control my life.
  4. I can handle this.
  5. I am safe. There is no imminent danger.
  6. This is not a crisis. I do not need to panic.
  7. This is just one moment in time.
  8. I’m not going to be scared by a feeling.
  9. All I have to figure out is the next step.
  10. This is for now not forever.

Affirmations for Depression

As with anxiety, depression can be made worse by negative thinking habits, such as overgeneralization and cognitive distortions. Affirmations can help you change your thinking patterns and perspective by acknowledging and focusing on more positive aspects of ourselves and our lives. Here are some examples you can adapt for your own use.

  1. You are valued even when you’re not productive.
  2. Despite your sadness. you are loved.
  3. You are not sick because of a lack of effort or failure at adjusting faulty thoughts.
  4. Your brain is your friend (despite what you hear)
  5. You are appreciated even when you can’t contribute much.
  6. Even though you feel worthless, you are needed.
  7. You are separate from your depression.
  8. You are much more than your opinions of yourself.
  9. Your discomfort won’t last forever.
  10. You are okay where you are right now.

Use Your Thoughts to Help You

You have much the power to influence your physical and mental states. You have to use that power for your good. Your body expresses your mind, right down to the genetic level, and the more you improve your mental habits, the more beneficial the response you’ll get from your body. You can’t control what has happened in the past, which shaped the brain you have today, programmed your cells, and caused certain genes to switch on. But, you can influence today and the future. You have the power in this moment and going forward to choose your perspective and behavior, which will change your brain, cells, and genes.

You might consider affirmations to be unrealistic “wishful thinking.” But try looking at positive affirmations this way: many of us do repetitive exercises to improve our physical health, and affirmations are like exercises for our mind and outlook. These positive mental repetitions can reprogram your thinking patterns. Over time and with repetition, you can begin to think and act differently. It’s really just about becoming aware of and changing the way you talk to yourself.

You talk to yourself all the time anyway. Why not use this to help you?

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  1. So true , the words we speak and the thoughts we think are what help us both grow and heal so it is so important to drop positive ones in
    We also have to get into the feeling state of those words and thoughts to really make the shift

  2. Cathy Taughinbaugh Reply

    Great to know that affirmations can significantly increase feelings of hopefulness. Very helpful information here, Debbie.

  3. I’ve never really cared whether science verified what I saw as being true in my life Debbie, which is just as well because when I started using affirmations many, many years ago, there really wasn’t any scientific verification to fall back on. But I do find it interesting how today scientists have more and more explanations of what mystics of centuries ago already knew. I appreciate all the research that you put into your articles. They are always a fascinating read. Thanks Debbie.

  4. Debbie, This is such a helpful article. I often use it as a resource. I especially like the way you show us how to enrich and internalize the experience of saying an affirmation.

    • I’m glad you find it helpful, Sandra. I use affirmations daily in my morning mindfulness session.

  5. Thank you for the science behind affirmations! I love to use them and have students and my children use them and adding the science behind them gives the concept even more power! Thank you!

    • I agree with you, Nadine. I know they work for me, but I like seeing the science too!

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