On your way to work one morning you see an old friend walking towards you on the other side of the street. You wave, maybe you even shout their name, but they walk on and don't acknowledge you. You're annoyed, embarrassed, and are left worrying about it all day.
'How rude, he definitely saw me. What have I done wrong?'
Alternatively you have the exact same experience, but instead of assuming that this person has actively chosen to ignore you, you give them the benefit of the doubt - he wasn't wearing his glasses, he was in a hurry, he simply didn't see me.
Your thoughts, assumptions and beliefs shape the way you experience and respond to the world around you. The quality of your mood, your day, even your entire life can turn on the subjective way in which you perceive a situation.
What you think and feel shapes your reality, rather than the other way round. Shifting your beliefs can radically alter the way you experience that reality. But how do you do it? And is your brain really adaptable enough to accommodate an entirely new way of thinking?
(Image by @stacieswift)
Every time you have a thought, there is a burst of neurochemicals in the brain. Brain cells, connected by synapses, shoot messages between one another to release the hormones that drive your emotions and responses to different situations. Think of these neural pathways as river beds; the more water that flows along them the smoother the banks become, and the more the river flows down that path. The neural pathways that we use the most become roaring rivers; the emotional patterns engendered by that particular neural pathway become more automatic, powerful and ingrained over time. Frequently used pathways become stronger, while unused ones die off.
This means that the more you have particular thoughts or pursue particular behavioural habits, the more you will continue to have them.
Left to our own devices, these habits can often be negative. Just like with that friend across the road, we jump to conclusions and we assume the worst.
But what would happen if we could re-shape these pathways into self-affirming messages, instead of self-criticism and doubts?
The Science of Self-Affirmations
A self-affirmation is an act to assert one's adequacy when the self comes under attack. Going against threats in one's environment, and even countering denigration of the self by the self, self-affirmation has been proven to be a powerful means by which to improve problem-solving, creativity and happiness.
A 2015 study (1) used MRI imaging to show that positive affirmations activated the reward centres of the brain - the ventral striatum (VS) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC). These are the very same areas that light up when we eat our favourite meal or win a prize, and their activity can help to reduce pain and help us maintain balance in the face of threats in our environment.
Self-affirmation can also improve problem-solving and creativity in chronically stressed individuals. In a trial of 80 undergraduate students (2), researchers found self-affirmation exercises to be a novel means for boosting problem-solving performance under stress.
So you know the stakes, you know the science, but what can you actually do to enact self-affirmation in your life?
Exercise 1: Affirmation Essay
Popular amongst researchers testing the efficacy of self-affirmations, this is a 10-minute exercise you can do yourself at home.
Identify a 'value' or part of your life that is important to you: and this can be anything! Relationships with family and friends, music, creativity, religion, politics, humour, dance, etc. Take ten minutes to write a stream of consciousness about this one thing - why is it important to you? How does it make you feel? When was a time that it made an impact on your life?
Exercise 2: Manifest Your Destiny
The positive affirmations we know and love: "I am enough", or "I let go of the things that no longer serve me". It takes time to carve out new river beds of self-belief, and it takes a lot of effort to divert all the neurochemicals in your brain from the pathways that say "I'm not good enough", or "I can't do it". Gives these tips a try:
1. Affirmations. Find clear, succinct sentences that resonate with you, and perhaps focus on areas of your life where you feel less satisfied.
2. Make the time. Schedule in five minutes morning, noon and night where you sit down, look yourself in the eyes and repeat your mantras out loud. You can even write them over and over in a notebook. And really schedule it! Put it in your diary, so it is harder to justify skipping it.
3.Fake it til you make it. You might not feel the effects straight away - new behaviours can take 3-6 months to become habits. But if you put in the time, commit to yourself and the life you want, then this is a practice that can be truly transformational.
Exercise 3: Focus on the Positive
Dr. Rick Hanson's book, Hardwiring Happiness, suggests that human beings are predisposed to focus on the negatives in our experience. Spending just 10-20 seconds focusing on the positive aspects of your day can shift your perspective. Instead of allowing the stress of a busy commute or the anxiety of an argument with your friends to dominate your experience of the day, spend just 20 seconds focusing on something that was good - it can be as simple as a tasty lunch or a sunny day.
Again, this can begin to shift the flow of the river away from the negative pathways in your brain and channel it towards forming more positive, lasting habits that can shape your state of mind.