The Scientific Reason Why Affirmations Work and How You Can Use Them

Image by Dantegráfico from Pixabay

If you think affirmations are a woo-woo New Age technique, I hate to break it to you, but you’re already affirming. All of us, including you, use affirmations, albeit unconsciously.

Every thought you think, every deed you do, and every word you speak, is an affirmation. In totality, they mold your experience of life and have the power to bend reality itself.

If you complain about not having enough (money or whatever), you’re affirming a consciousness of lack. If you get angry with someone, you’re affirming your need to control the events in your life.

The “practice of affirmations”, then, is simply the act of taking back control of our lives and our thoughts. Instead of letting our subconscious tendencies rule our decision-making faculties, we consciously choose the qualities we want to develop through affirmations.

And yes, this means, you have the power to change yourself.

The Brain’s Bias

The bad news is that our brains do have a negativity bias. This was built-in our brains for self-preservation. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, if a wild mammoth resides in the nearby forest, we’d always be alert for signs of danger lest we become the one being hunted.

Hence, humans have lived in a constant state of vigilance for a long time. Evolutionarily, we’re trained to pay attention to negatives stimuli. But in a world where dangers are more social and mental than physical, this tendency still persists.

Today, a child’s reaction to getting a bad grade may be the same as the head of the village who sees a saber-toothed tiger running towards him.

Naturally, this leads to negative thinking, stress, and anxiety. This tendency of the brain can be changed, however, because the brain is plastic and is uniquely capable to adapt.

What, then are affirmations?

As Swami Kriyananda writes in Affirmations for Self-Healing, “to ‘affirm’ is to state that something is true. When applied to the spiritual life, an affirmation is a statement of truth which one aspires to absorb into his life.”

Affirmations are practical, not merely wishful thinking. They don’t work only since we make the great mistake of not believing in our own power to change.

When you start affirming, a voice in your head will say — “Come on, you know that isn’t true. Things don’t happen just because you say they will!” Most people listen to this voice, a.k.a the inner critic, and therefore diminish the power of the affirmation itself.

Remember then, the affirmation is only as powerful as your concentration and faith. Before I write more about how to practice them, however, let me show you some “real” proof.

The Scientific Reason Affirmations Work

A lot of benefits in the case of self-affirmations originate in the subconscious mind which makes it difficult to make a case for it to a skeptic.

Christopher Cascio and his colleagues thus found this area perfect to be studied in detail with the help of brain imaging. They published their findings in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

They asked 67 participants to list the following eight areas of life in order of how much value they place on them: creativity, relations with family and friends, humor, independence, business or earning money, politics, religious values, and spontaneity or living life in the moment.

Then, laying each participant in the brain scanner, they asked half of them to visualize and affirm their top-rated values. The other half (the control group) were prompted to think about the past and future scenarios about their least important value.

The study found that affirmations were helpful and rewarding for people. By taking their focus away from the problems of life, they, even if for a moment, helped them aspire for greater heights and bought cherishable things to their attention. Affirming future scenarios, the study also noted, was especially helpful than dwelling on the past.

According to Positive Psychology, affirmations have also been proven to:

  • Decrease health-deteriorating stress
  • Be used effectively in interventions that led people to increase their physical behavior
  • Help us to perceive otherwise “threatening” messages with less resistance
  • Make us less likely to dismiss harmful health messages
  • Improve academic performance by mitigating GPA decline in students who feel left out at college, and
  • Lower levels of stress and rumination.

The health benefits of affirmations are immense, but perhaps the most important of them all is that it changes our outlook and perspective on life. The optimism that they give us is itself one of the most powerful gifts we can ask for.

How To Practice

While I’ve gone into detail over affirmations before, here are some things you should keep in mind:

  • They shouldn’t negate negativity but affirm positivity and should always be in the present tense. This means affirmations should be like “I am calm and peaceful” instead of saying “I will not be angry.”
  • Before practicing, go to a quiet place and practice a few breathing exercises to bring the mind to focus. If you already have a meditation practice, it’s best to practice affirmations at the end of it. A calm mind makes it easy for the affirmation to go deeper.
  • Repeat the affirmation thrice in a loud voice, then a normal/whispery voice, then only mentally focusing at the point between the eyebrows. The loud voice captures the conscious mind, the whisper captures the subconscious mind, and repeating it mentally takes the words deeper into the superconscious.

Finally, pray believing. Merely reading affirmations is not enough. You need to feel in your heart that you’re affirming the truth. In his book How to Be a Success, Paramahansa Yogananda wrote:
“In practicing affirmations, the spiritual aspirant must be unfailingly patient. Believe you are inherently healthy when you want good health; believe you are inherently prosperous when you want prosperity; believe you are inherently wise when you want wisdom — then health, prosperity, and wisdom will manifest themselves in you.”

Final Thoughts

Affirmations are scientific and methodical. They’re not wishful thinking or hollow sentences uttered without belief. But, they are powerful only to the extent we believe in them.

For those who don’t believe, I have one word — experiment. I’ve often been skeptical about a lot of things including prayer and affirmations. But once I saw them working, I could no longer doubt.

Choose an affirmation right now or make one for yourself according to the points above.

You can never change life’s circumstances, but you can always change yourself. Affirmations are a potent way to do just that.

Struggling to meditate? Get your free 7 Day email course — Meditation 101: How to Start Meditating

Written on August 21, 2021