We can change how we feel by changing how we think. Affirmations may help break the habit of negative thinking. Negative thinking is often a major contributing factor in chronic anxiety, depression and the feelings of frustration, outbursts of rage, or being “stuck,” all of which are normal responses to unresolved trauma.
From ancient, traditional Yoga teachings, it is said that all thoughts are “magnetic” and attract according to their vibrations. Negative thoughts and actions attract negative energy – positive thoughts and actions attract positive energy.
The lifestyle art of Yoga offers many self-healing practices, like affirmations, that are not commonly known to practitioners who focus mainly on the physical postures found in Yoga. It is helpful to understand what is happening when practicing recitation of affirmations, both from a modern neuro-psycho-physiological point of view, as well as knowledge gathered from the ancient texts that inform the practice of Yoga.
AUTOMATIC THOUGHTS & CORE BELIEFS
Our thoughts can create a physiological chain reaction, a series of chemical and electrical signals that elicit responses such as sweating, nausea, and shaking. Negative thoughts may lead to symptoms and feelings of anxiety, anger and depression; positive thoughts may have the opposite effect: happiness, joy, and a general sense of contentment and well-being. Thoughts, both negative and positive, have great power, and operate beneath the surface of our awareness in the unconscious workings of our mind; therefore, they are often referred to as automatic thoughts – thinking negatively does not feel like a choice. Our automatic thoughts echo our core beliefs; these are fixed statements that we have about ourselves: how we see ourselves, how we judge what we do and how we view our future. The more negative our core beliefs are, the more negative our thoughts are, and the worse we feel emotionally and physically. This cycle of events (fig. 1) is a clear example of the mind-body connection that has become an important guiding principle of holistic, self-healing processes that work through unresolved trauma.
HOW THE UNCONSCIOUS “LEARNS”
Our unconscious mind is complex and has many functions, one of which is to help us act and react according to learned behavior from past experiences without the time consuming process of conscious, rational thinking each time we are faced with a situation or decision. When a child first encounters fire, something red, bright, hot and flickering, they don’t have an experience-base to relate a burning sensation to fire. If they touch it and get burned, the pain and the emotions of fear and sadness are stored in their unconscious, so the next time they see fire, they avoid touching it because their emotional memory “reminds” them. For the most part, the function of emotional memory eliciting an aversion response is a good one, in that it plays a protective role. However, this aversion response can be very problematic when we lay down emotional memory with a judgment about ourselves (examples: being humiliated and embarrassed in front of a large group, or being told we are pathetic by a school-yard bully, or put in the humiliating and vulnerable situation of sexual harassment/assault). The judgment may work its way into our core beliefs without our awareness. We all know a high-achiever in life who feels useless and unworthy; they are never satisfied with any accomplishment. Somewhere in the high-achiever’s life, the thought of unworthiness was established. It is also very common to see a victim carry shame and/or guilt from a perpetrator’s violence because of the complexity of emotional memory. I personally experienced this latter phenomenon – I blamed myself for an assault I endured at the age of 21 and it took over twenty-five years to understand how I misplaced the blame. Many core beliefs are established in childhood when we are laying down our database of learned experiences and our emotional brains are most active, but even in adulthood, repetitive exposure to negative events as seen in abusive relationships or traumatic experiences can create new ingrained negative thought patterns.
OUR LENS FOR PERCEPTION
In traditional Yoga teachings, the core beliefs and the repetitive patterns of thought, behavior, and resulting emotions are referred to as Samskaras. Samskaras are ingrained patterns in the unconscious. These impressions of past experiences are the lens through which we look through and form our perceptions of what is happening in the present moment. Negative past impressions may cloud our perception, and we may therefore view everything through a negative lens. An innocent comment from a stranger may be perceived as judgement and the felt-response is shame and embarrassment when really the stranger made no such judgement. Someone who has had a lot of negative experiences in their life will likely view experiences negatively. A helpful analogy is to think about driving in a car and viewing the world around us through the windshield. Negative events are like driving through muddy waters; the more mud we drive through, the more dirt clings to our windshield and our ability to see clearly becomes more and more obscured, we are no longer looking straight through a clear windshield – the mud colors our view and we may see patterns that the mud has created rather than what is really in front of us. Samskaras is a cause of suffering and require action to overcome; the practice of reciting affirmations is an action-tool to break the suffering bondage. Another important teaching that is related to any Yoga practice from ancient texts is that dedication to a long-term practice (abhyasa), while also practicing the non-attachment (vairagya) that happens when deliberately moving past effects of trauma, will cultivate a steadiness of the mind and ultimately self-mastery.
TRAINING THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND
From a more scientific viewpoint, we can oversimplify a complex process and state that our conscious mind has the ability to ‘train’ our unconscious mind. The unconscious mind holds our core beliefs, and is responsible for our perception of the world. This perception participates in establishing our patterns of behavior. The unconscious learns by rote, unlike the conscious mind that uses rational, discriminating thought processes. Repetition is the secret to why affirmations work. The constant repetition of a statement will ensure its adaptation by our unconscious mind. The trick is to expose your mind to affirmations repeatedly for long periods of time. The unconscious mind, when exposed to these positive thoughts again and again, will eventually accept them as ‘true.’ The center of the brain that is responsible for conscious, rational thought has the power of discrimination, and may reject what you say at first. However, the unconscious and does not have the same ability of discern or judge, and will eventually just absorb the most prevalent “thought” and over-ride the conscious rejection, even if the rational mind does not believe the affirmations at the onset of the practice. Repeating your affirmation is the key to success; affirmations must be repeated and for long periods of time. Even if you recognize a shift within weeks, keep going; it typically takes months for a significant difference to be noted.
RESEARCH ON AFFIRMATIONS
There is very little scientific research on affirmations. The majority of the research available asserts that affirmations are useful in trauma recovery1,2,3 and that further studies are needed . There are a couple of very short-term studies that conclude self-affirmations do not work. I have yet to see a well-constructed, long-term study that can effectively dispute what millions of people have experienced for millennia – recitation helps us move through difficult core beliefs that have been ingrained due to traumatic history and experiences. Once we embrace the two ideas promoted in this paper: 1) our thoughts, our perceptions of the world around us, as well as our patterns of behavior that result from the thoughts and perceptions, are fueled by our core beliefs and 2) we can actively change those core beliefs through positive thinking and affirmations; it opens us to the discovery that both the problem and the solution are within us and within our control.
The traditional methods of chanting with a mala, saying prayers with a Rosary, and many other recitation practices that have come out of spiritual traditions are based on the same premise as affirmations; eventually your mind, body and spirit will absorb that which you recite over and over again. The traditional chanting practice of Japa Mala suggests starting with a goal, a number of recitations. There are many schools of thought in ancient teachings- anywhere from a minimum goal of 25,000 recitations, up to 600,000 before the mantra/affirmation becomes ingrained. Regardless of what goal you set, start right away, and practice in a variety of settings; this practice is very helpful for replacing looping, negative automatic thinking.
HOW TO PRACTICE AFFIRMATIONS
- Choose an affirmation
Create a statement that is in the present tense and positive – see examples on the next page.
- Options for practice
- Sit as you would in meditation – be sure to find a comfortable position – it is beneficial to try to do your recitation practice at roughly the same time every day, but don’t limit yourself, recite whenever you think of it or feel the need to replace negative thinking.
- Practice affirmations during an activity that does not require your full attention (e.g. walking, raking leaves, washing dishes, cleaning, stuck in rush-hour traffic (but not while driving), showering, or standing in line at the post office).
- Use affirmations when your mind wanders into negativity, obsesses or replays old negative memories, any time you want to change the direction of your thoughts for any reason.
- Use a counting method (optional)
Set a goal, a number of recitations you want to say each day. You can always add, but make this number your minimum so you get into the routine of a disciplined, daily practice.
- Use a mala, or prayer beads of any kind. A traditional mala has 108 beads, but any number will do. Start at the knot of the bead string; state your affirmation while simultaneously pushing a bead away with your thumb. When you get back to the knot, you have completed one round; the next round ,do the opposite, pull the bead toward you. For a demonstration please see:
- Use your fingers: lay your hands on your lap, palms down. Tap your fingers sequentially to count off groups of ten affirmations per set.
- Journal (optional)
There may not be a noticeable change right away; alterations in the unconscious are hard to discern. Changes are most easily noticed by comparing how you felt in the past to how you feel in the present – keep a daily journal of thoughts and feelings right before your practice; this will serve as a tool for comparison at a later date.
Give your full attention to the affirmation as you speak aloud or recite silently if in a public place. Say it with meaning and visualize what your life will look like when the affirmation/intention has come to be.
The more time you practice each day, the sooner the effects will slowly work into your unconscious. Over time you will notice that certain things just do not bother you anymore and you feel more content. That is the power of affirmations.
1. Creswell, J.D., Welch, W.T., Taylor, S.E., Sherman, D.K., Gruenewald, T.L., and Mann T. (2005) Affirmation of Personal Values Buffers Neuroendocrine and Psychological Stress Responses. Psychological Science 16(11), 846-851.
Retrieved from URL: http://people.psych.ucsb.edu/sherman/david/creswell.psychsci2005.pdf
2. Koole, S.L., Smeets, K., van Knippenberg, A., & Dijksterhuis, A. (1999). The Cessation of Rumination Through Self-Affirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 111-125.
3. Creswell, J.D., Dutcher, J.M., Klein, W.M.P., Harris, P.R., and Levine, J.M. (May 1, 2013). Self-Affirmation Improves Problem-Solving under Stress
Retrieved from URL: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0062593