You’ll be forgiven for the eye-roll that title just caused you to have. If there is one thing that has become a f-letter expression in the modern world, it is the “positive thinking” admonition. It is especially grating to people dealing with extreme stress, depression, anxiety … and every other mental health challenge where at-will control does not have a default setting. There has, in recent times, even been talk of the “cult of toxic positivity” and we may speak on that a bit later.

This is not that kind of positive thinking we’re talking about. This is not the power of positive thinking; this is the power of thinking positively. And there is a difference, and not just in the semantics. Positive thinking is held forth as a passive shield against difficult times. Thinking positively, however, is an action you can consciously take to shift your mind towards your strengths – the strengths you already have and the ones you are actively working on developing.

Despite what many unqualified life coaches and other assorted spiritual gurus may have told you, affirmations are not magic bullets. They will not, in and of themselves, lead to instant success and/or healing. This does not mean they are without value.

To understand how and why affirmations work, we must look at how the brain adapts to different inputs and circumstances. The brain sometimes mixes up reality and imagination, and the surprising clue to why and how affirmations work lies in this surprisingly useful confusion. The brain’s ability to adapt throughout life is called neuroplasticity, and it offers the inroad into how to use affirmations effectively.

Precisely because the brain sometimes confuses reality and imagination, we can affect the adaptations the brain makes to inputs through its plasticity by consciously “telling” it what we want to be manifestly true. We can do this by creating a mental image of ourselves successfully conquering something like a life challenge or a fear. This mental image activates many of the same brain areas that the reality of the situation would activate. This in essence “tricks” the brain into believing it has already conquered the challenge, slowly building a resilience against the challenge as the more and more conquests the brain experiences – through regular repetition of the exercise – the better prepared it is to deal with each new occurrence of the challenge.

For example, by replacing a negative self-belief such as “I am terrible at job interview, I am probably not even good enough to get this job!” with a positive affirmation, such as “I am perfectly suited to this job, and have all the necessary skills and experience to be an ideal candidate,” can help you feel more relaxed before the actual interview, and supporting the affirmation by making sure you are fully prepared can also prevent self-sabotaging thoughts and behaviours which could affect the success of the interview.

It is imperative to keep in mind that the onus of control lies in the action. Affirmations are actions when seen as steps towards the positive change you wish to achieve, but steps on their own ends up as a walk to nowhere. Affirmations needs to be partnered with actionable tactics on how to deal with situations as they present themselves. Worried about losing your temper? Learn tactics to remain calm and in control until you can remove yourself from the stressful situation.

Affirmations can be made more effective by personalising them to your circumstances and they should always be set in the present. This is where affirmations differ from goals: goals are things you must work toward in the future, but an affirmation is a reminder of what you can do in the present. Affirmations cannot work if you focus your statement something that you cannot accept as possibly true. It is also crucial to keep affirmations based in reality. An affirmation such as “I will get my dream job today” is great unless your dream job is as an astronaut and you haven’t even passed the academy training!

If you are facing specific challenges and are working with a qualified therapist to deal with these issues, speak to them about incorporating personalised affirmations into your daily routine in support of your therapy. They will be able to help you formulate more effective affirmations to help you reach your goals.

Remember, in the end, the affirmation does not make the change. You do.

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