Do Positive Affirmations Really Work? Here’s What Mental Health Experts
Have you looked in the mirror or closed your eyes and told yourself that you were capable, talented, loved, worthy, or perfect just the way you are?
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Positive affirmations—the practise of repeating empowering, supportive mantras designed to bolster happiness and success—are a widely popular therapy tool, ranging from vision boards to self-talk in the mirror to quiet chants repeated during meditation.
While positive affirmations may have some root in mantras found in religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, in modern North American culture, positive affirmations are largely secular without a religious connection. Bestsellers such as The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale and Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, plus popular books and seminars from self-help gurus like Tony Robbins, have continued to advance positive affirmations as an actionable tool to achieving the life you want.
Positive thinking and positive affirmations have become ingrained into our society. This includes self-help books regularly topping bestseller lists to self-help shows rising to the top of the Netflix charts. This popularity stems, in part, from people embracing authenticity, says Christine E. W. Borst, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Christine Borst Creative.
Positive affirmations and mental health
“Mental health has been so stigmatized for so long, and people are just ready to be their authentic selves,” Borst says, citing celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, who by speaking about their own struggles are helping to normalize it for the rest of us.
Borst believes that the more that we talk about mental health and mental wellness, the less stigma there is, which will lead to more people reaching out for help to improve their own well-being. “I love that as a society we are embracing mental wellness!” Borst says, adding, “I think positive thinking is an important piece to overall wellness, and especially after this past year, we are just ready to feel good.”
However, for skeptics it sounds almost too good to be true: Repeat positive words and reap your desires? We spoke with mental health experts to suss out the truth about whether positive affirmations really work.
(Related: 4 Ways to Boost Your Mental Health During Covid-19)
Do positive affirmations really work?
Many mental health experts believe that, yes, positive affirmations actually do have clear benefits, not to mention scientific grounding.
“There is quite a bit of research out there that supports the benefits of positive affirmations, but like anything else, it depends on what outcomes one hopes for and what their baseline is,” says Borst.
What the science says
In a 2016 study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, optimism and self-affirmation were associated with both a lower likelihood of cognitive impairment and also a greater positive effect—including coping, goal achievement, and better health—among cancer survivors.
Peggy Fitzsimmons, psychologist and author of Release: Create a Clutter Free and Soul Driven Life, agrees that there’s evidence that positive affirmations work. “The thoughts we think determine our emotions, the energy we exude, and the actions we take. When we affirm a thought enough times, it becomes a belief,” she says.
Changing your worldview
Fitzsimmons explains that many of us operate from beliefs that are false or outdated, clinging to old visions of ourselves or limiting worldviews.
“For instance, if we hold beliefs such as ‘the world is not safe’ or ‘I have to achieve to earn love,’ we will find ourselves experiencing emotions such as fear, shame, or frustration,” explains Fitzsimmons. “These energies influence how we engage with others; for example, we might tend towards judging, competing, or loving conditionally. In this way, what we affirm becomes dominant in us and influences our reality,” she says.
(Related: The Surprising Way Positive Thinking Can Transform Your Life)
When do positive affirmations not work?
While Borst supports positive affirmations at times, she notes that they don’t work in every context. “Positive affirmations may not help if a person needs more intense support with diagnoses like anxiety or depression, or has a history of trauma that has gone unexplored,” she says.
For Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist, cognitive neuroscientist, and author of 101 Ways to be Less Stressed: Simple Self-Care Strategies to Boost Your Mind, Mood, and Mental Health, positive affirmations must be bolstered by other work for meaningful results.
“Although the idea of speaking positively until something great happens sounds nice, just saying something positive over and over again will not create lasting change in the brain or body. It’s not sustainable because it’s not connected to the root cause of why you feel the need for a positive affirmation in the first place,” she says.
Positive affirmations and mood and behaviour changes
At the end of the day, positive affirmations are simply about language, and how it affects your mood, says Borst.
“I am a big believer in the power of language!” Borst says. “I see it with my kids—they respond much better when I say ‘Walk please!’ instead of ‘No running in the kitchen!’ I think we can all agree that it just feels better when people speak to us nicely, are kind and authentic, and complimentary. The same holds true when we talk to ourselves,” she says.
Fitzsimmons explains that positive affirmations are helpful because they give us a new lens from which to view both ourselves and the world.
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“Positive affirmations such as ‘the world is a friendly place’ or ‘I am enough’ create helpful emotions such as joy and appreciation,” explains Fitzsimmons, adding that these emotions carry energies like acceptance and peace which, in turn, influence the actions we take in relationships.
(Related: 6 Priorities to Make for a Happy and Healthy Life)
Positive affirmations and personality changes
Say you’re a shy person who dreads public speaking. Or perhaps you’re a glass-half-empty type who always expects the worst. Can positive affirmations actually work to change your personality if you want to be more outgoing or optimistic?
Therapist Mary Jo Podgurski, who is certified in sexuality education and counseling and author of Sex Ed is in Session, doesn’t believe so.
“Positive affirmations do not change an innate personality, nor should they,” says Podgurski, speaking of the children she focuses on in her practise. But while they might not change a personality, they can influence it for the better. “Positive affirmations give a child hope and direction. They are a cloak on a chilly day. Along with consensual hugs, they increase feelings of self-worth,” she says.
Borst thinks positive affirmations work best to create change when combined with other work. She explains, “Personality is a complex topic, but I do think we tend to label ourselves a certain way and stick with it. Humans are creatures of habit, and the ways we think and act are no exception.”
Vision boards and positive affirmation
If you enjoy making vision boards in late December or early January, you’re not alone.
“A vision board is a compilation of words and images that represent how you want to experience yourself in the world,” explains Fitzsimmons.
“It is a fun and artistic way to affirm what your deepest heart desires, and place it in the forefront of your mind, as the lens through which you are approaching life,” she says. “Vision boards keep us focused and affirming what we want, which allows our life to come into harmony with those affirmations.”
Jane Pernotto Ehrman, clinical hypnotherapist and certified in interactive guided imagery, believes vision boards are most effective when combined with affirmations. “Alone, it is less effective in making the change. Coupling the vision board with positive affirmations for specifically achieving your vision is more effective,” she says.
Positive affirmations in therapy
Borst tries to challenge her clients on their negative thinking habits. “We know through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that we can get caught in negative thinking traps—called cognitive distortions—and those traps can influence our behaviour,” explains Borst. “Learning to recognize when you’re in a trap, and knowing how to get out of it, can have a big impact on your life,” she says.
While Borst doesn’t think positive affirmations alone can get you out of a negative-thinking trap, they’re a good tool to complement the work. “Our conversations naturally evolve into the client deciding what fits best for them, what feels authentic—even if it’s initially difficult to practise—and we go from there,” she explains.
(Related: 10 Ways to Get Rid of Negative Energy)
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Examples of positive affirmations
For Ehrman, affirmations are a way to create mind-body changes. She recommends creating affirmations by doing the following:
- Use short, positive statements.
- Create affirmations in the present tense: I do, I am, I enjoy, I love, etc.
- Say the change you seek for yourself.
- Type and print the affirmations, posting them where you will see them to reinforce change.
- Choose 1-2 affirmations to say and repeat, and write them 25 times a day for at least a week. Then, choose new affirmations.
Ehrman believes it’s important to include the following affirmation: “The more I tell myself these truths, the more they become my natural way of living and being,” she says.
Fitzsimmons offers an example of a positive affirmation for a new year. “In 2021, I fall into step with the truth of my soul. I hold the vision of myself as an agent of love, rather than fear. I move in the world with light energy and a minimal footprint. I focus on what really matters. I rely on my inner knowing. I release that which no longer serves,” she says.
For Anne Redlich, an Illinois-based licensed clinical social worker, setting intentions is especially powerful, and doesn’t only need to happen at the new year.
“Instead of making resolutions, try setting intentions,” she says. “An intention is like a seed that you can plant inside of yourself and meditate on daily. Something that can grow organically within. And that can become a part of you, rather than just a goal you’re striving toward.”
When do you see results?
Positive affirmations require time and repetition; it’s unrealistic to expect results overnight.
“Saying them multiple times a day, paying attention to the words and their meaning help to strengthen the change in your behaviour,” says Ehrman, who recommends writing your affirmation 25 times a day for at least a week. “It’s powerful and helps lock this new way of thinking and being into your behaviour,” she says.
Fitzsimmons believes it’s important to put in a few hours a day when seeking change.
“When we hold a positive affirmation as our point of focus, our reality changes. Experience this yourself by taking a few hours of your day and inhabiting an affirmation of gratitude, such as ‘I am grateful for everything.’ As you do, you will find yourself walking through the world with a smile, appreciative and excited about whatever comes your way,” Fitzsimmons says. “And good things will tend to come your way because you are transmitting, and in return receiving, that kind of energy.”
A downside to positive affirmations
While finding positivity in everyday life can be helpful, there is, indeed, a potential downside, says Borst, citing the idea of toxic positivity: ignoring negativity or negative feelings and “exemplifying only the positive.”
“Stuffing all things negative down and ignoring them can fester,” Borst says, discussing the mind-body connection and the possibility of unaddressed issues physically manifesting. “If we are using positive affirmations like a Band-Aid on a gushing wound, they probably won’t be effective.”
Remember, it’s OK to sit with discomfort
In addition to positive affirmations, Borst recommends sitting with discomfort, as unappealing as that may initially be. “There is a lot of beauty in sitting with pain when we feel it—sometimes going straight through things is the fastest way to healing,” she says.
Leaf agrees, seeing people in her practise and research pursuing happiness as an end goal, only to end up falling short after self-help techniques don’t work.
“Yes, it is good to be happy, but that is not all life is, and it is perfectly OK to experience other emotions like sadness and grief when things don’t work out—which often happens, since we do not control everything—and learn from these experiences,” says Leaf. This, in turn, will lead to growth and maturity, Leaf explains.
She adds, “It’s OK to feel sad; these emotions are signals that we need to listen to, not suppress or cover with ‘happiness.’ We really aren’t designed to be happy and get what we want all the time.”
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