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The Surprising Science of Self-Affirmations

The term “self-affirmation” may call to mind a meditative yoga class or the classic Al Franken “Saturday Night Live” Character Stuart Smalley (Remember? “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”). Self-affirmations are sayings, like Smalley’s, that are repeated to oneself in order to improve confidence and self-image.

But self affirmations are not a joke — recent research shows that using positive mantras can decrease stress and improve performance on challenging tasks. And they may even help you make healthier decisions.

 When you’re stressed out, your problem-solving skills diminish, but studies show that self-affirmation practices can combat this effect. “Under stress, our brain defaults to its most common setting,” Caroline Miller, MAPP, the author of “Creating Your Best Life,” tells Yahoo Health. “But if we practice reinforcing something positive — like the affirmation ‘You can do this’ — in stressful situations, we can learn to default to a place of positive self-regard.”
In fact, Miller notes, athletes who experience stress have found that repeating an encouraging phrase to themselves, like, “This is going well,” or “Persistence breaks resistance,” can keep them going physically, thus building their faith in their ability to persevere.

Self-affirmations have also been shown to help people make healthier choices. A new study in “Psychology of Sport and Exercise” shows that athletes who practiced self-affirming mantras experienced decreased temptation and intentions to dope for performance enhancement, compared with a control group. Miller says this is because by creating an “implementation intention” for how to behave in tempting situations, you can triple your chances of accomplishing hard goals.

“If you decide ahead of time that you will say something positive and proactive to yourself when you encounter temptation (for example, ‘When I see someone light up, I will tell myself I am a non-smoker and I will leave the room’), then you will have created a contract with yourself that is often unbreakable,” she explains.

To incorporate self-affirmations into your life, Miller recommends starting with mantras of love for yourself,  for others you care about, and for people you’ve had challenges with. Do this at home on your own, repeating the upbeat and affectionate phrases to yourself daily, so the feelings are already there when you encounter those people.

“If you practice saying positive things in non-stressful situations, it’s been found that you can actually change your brain’s reactions,” Miller notes. So when the more stressful situation does arise (an event with a boorish co-worker or during a holiday party with a meddling relative, for example), you already have a habit of affirming love as a response.

 If you’re looking for more daily-life, goal-oriented changes — like getting healthier or ditching a bad habit — Miller suggests an affirmation that pairs an environmental cue with a desired behavior change. That could mean anything from, “When my alarm goes off at 5 a.m., I will get up and go for a run,” to “When we order dessert, I will have a delicious peppermint tea.” “The more you practice and succeed at this type of self-regulation, the bigger and better your stores of willpower for future needs,” says Miller.
 Of course, self-affirmations aren’t just phrases to be plucked from thin air. “If you have no history of being an athlete, self-affirming that you will finish an Ironman may only reinforce that it’s not your thing,” says Miller. “Affirmations have to be based on some reality around what you do well and character strengths you possess, for them to be useful.”
Working with self-affirmations may feel a little hokey at first, but the positivity that they can bring about is worth it, according to Miller: “If you practice deliberate self-talk followed by proactive behavior, you can create positive habits and emotions within yourself that lead to long-term change.”

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