How Self Affirmations can Alter your Brain Structure

It’s been a tough term "back" in York, but you’ve gotta keep going to keep growing.

(Image: Andrea Piacquadio)

This term seems to have been relentless? Constant deadlines, constant zoom calls, constant mountains of work to get through – it has just been a lot. 

There is a huge expectation upon us (from wider society, peers, and ourselves) that we should not just persevere through this pandemic, but excel during it and should become better, if not the best versions of ourselves.

As if the continuous COVID situation, mixed with a crazy uni year, wasn’t enough, these unsaid expectations to be “excelling” can really impact our mental health. Now more than ever, we turn to social media as both a pacifier and as a companion. Starved of real social contact, we peruse social media to keep the illusion of a social life. Though this mindless scrolling doesn’t come without consequences, these images trickle into our social consciousness as we expose ourselves to thousands of images.

We compare our real, authentic 24/7 selves, with an expansive number of accounts overflowing with perfect people – most of which, frankly, don’t exist.

Social media is very much about showcasing the best aspects of your life. You choose what you share, so obviously people are going to flex those days when they’ve won awards, are looking their best, or have completed mega workouts. Showing you the days when they can’t get out of bed, when they’ve got chronic acne, or when they’re crying at the dinner table just won’t amount to the same number of likes (I know- shocker). You only see what people choose to show you, so much is premeditated, so much is filtered / edited /  UNREAL.

This doesn’t stop our brains from comparing ourselves to them, though, does it? We have been holding ourselves to unattainable standards since school, comparing ourselves to pop icons and celebrities, who do not resemble the average person (both physically but also with the number of resources they use to facilitate their “perfect” lifestyles). Even these big names, however, cannot reach this fictitious ideal – they are also unable to look like the pictures they release into the world of Instagram – which only reinforces a toxic narrative of inadequacy. 

Right now, the world is feeling a little crazy. Life is uncertain, with plot twists every week, there are a lot of negatives we have had to overcome this year. Both personal, as a country and as an entire race. Now more than ever, we need to take control over our own narratives as much as we can, be our own advocates, and reinforce what matters to us. I’m not saying a little bit of self-affirmation is going to change the entire world, but it might change your own just enough to get you through these next few months, making your brain a little bit more indestructible. 

Your brain is incredibly complex, and consists of about 100 billion neurons (roughly- depending on your lifestyle/ age etc), it has numerous important structures which can change size and shape depending on how much you use them.

That’s the cool thing about structures in your brain – they can be tailored to fit your lifestyle, allowing neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. This is called neuroplasticity, allowing new neural pathways to connect gives the individual a unique set of skills over time.  The structure of your brain can be predisposed from birth but it is not a fixed structure: the job you do, the lifestyle you live and the habits you form, can all alter the structure.

Think of your brain like a muscle. If you work out and use your muscles more, they will change shape to accommodate the new demands. When you stop working out they may hold their shape for a while, but ultimately they will lose their tone and strength if not maintained. The same goes for your brain – you have to keep up healthy habits to have a well-functioning brain.

So let’s cut to the chase. Self affirmations have been shown to increase a person’s sense of wellbeing, resilience and self worth. The use of self affirmations can combat chronic stress and depression, and can also change the neural pathways in your brain. The way we talk to ourselves matters. The standards we hold ourselves to are important. 

What are self affirmations? Pointless positivity, or as practical as prescriptions?

Self affirmations are positive statements that help people to overcome low self esteem, avoid self-sabotage and let go of negative thoughts. The repetition of these positive statements are more than just wishful thinking, they help to retrain your brain – changing your thought patterns will ultimately will change the way you act and think. By reinforcing that you possess a unique combination of strengths – a combination of qualities, skills and past achievements – before high pressure situations (seminars/ interviews or even dates), it can help settle your nerves, increase your confidence and create a better outcome.

Research conducted by Kang. S et al (2015) investigated the effects of self affirmation on performance, concluding that “underperformance disappears” when you self affirm, both before high and low pressure scenarios.

Cresswell. D et al (2013) led a study whose results “showed that self-affirmation improved problem-solving performance in underperforming chronically stressed individuals”. Stress – both acute and chronic – has been known to negatively affect a person’s ability to solve problems; these findings demonstrate that the effects of chronic stress conditions could be eliminated by some simple self affirmation exercises. 

Not only can self affirmations help to negate effects of stress and increase your confidence, they have also been used to successfully treat people with a range of conditions, such as low self-esteem or even depression.  Peden. A (2001) undertook research specifically with college aged women in the US, the findings were that “women in the intervention group experienced a greater decrease in depressive symptoms and negative thinking and a greater increase in self-esteem than those in the control group”. Cohen. G and Sherman. D (2014) also recorded that “timely affirmations have been shown to improve education, health, and relationship outcomes, with benefits that sometimes persist for months and years.”

Consistent self affirmations can result in a positive feedback loop, meaning the more you practice the healthy habits – the better able you are to overcome obstacles – reinforcing that you are able and that the confidence you have in yourself is well founded. Studies like these demonstrate that effective self affirmation strategies can be used to reinforce overall positive changes for our health, due to the positive stimulation we promote in our brains.

So what are the biological effects of self- affirmations? Are the benefits just all in your head?

Your brain is made up of 100 billion neurons. These are specialised cells in the brain that transmit information to other cells. A neuron consists of three main parts: a soma (the main body of the cell which maintains the cell), an axon (transmits electrical and chemical signals to other cells) and dendrites (receives signals from other neurons).  Neurons are vital for transferring information throughout the body and there are three main types of neurons:

  1. Sensory neurons – they respond to stimuli such as light/ touch/ sound which send signals to the brain / spinal cord
  2. Motor neurons – receive signals from the brain / spinal cord and pass it on to other cells to trigger responses e.g. muscle contraction.
  3. Interneurons – connect neurons to each other that are in the same area

Studies investigating the effects of self affirmations in the brain measure brain activity,  use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine neural processes that underpin many of our thoughts and behaviours. FMRI’s are a type of brain scanning technique that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. This relies on a key premise that there is a correlation between cerebral blood flow and neuronal activation, meaning that the blood flow to areas in the brain will increase in proportion to the activity in that area. 

In Falk. E’s  2015 study, they found that the participants in the self affirmation group had more activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) as opposed to those in the control group. The vmPFC is situated in the prefrontal cortex and is used for processing perceptions of risk and fear. It also plays a part in processing emotion, decision-making, memory, self-perception, and overall social cognition.

The brain activity was not the only difference between the groups, the brain activity also corresponded to behavioural changes too. The self- affirmation group increased their physical activity levels after the experiment to a higher degree – demonstrating that use of affirmations may allow individuals to respond to the messages and change their behaviour, recognising the self-relevance of messages which may have previously been seen as threatening. In Falk’s study, they used messages regarding health as a stimuli, and recorded the neural responses associated with self-related processing, showing the response to an otherwise-threatening, adverse or painful information on health can be changed using self-affirmations. 

Self affirmations also activate other structures in the brain linked with pleasure and reward such as the ventral striatum (VS) and the vmPFC. These structures can respond to numerous stimuli such as eating foods, shopping, sex and drugs – pretty mind-blowing that self affirmations can make your brain respond in the same way to those experiences! Not only is the activation of those structures pleasurable, studies such as Eisenberger. N (2011) have also shown that activation of these reward circuits can reduce the severity of perceived pain.

Cascio CN (2016) demonstrated that effects from self affirmations are the strongest when individuals consider future success as opposed to their past successes. For example, a statement like “consider a time in the future when you will have fulfilled a goal” will create more self affirming brain activity than a statement like: “remember other times you have overcome similar obstacles”.

These findings are also key for helping every individual to increase their senses of personal competence, resilience, and self worth. The specific neural mechanisms create an affirmation’s success, however, are not completely understood, but it is undeniable that effectively using self affirmations can improve many aspects of our thoughts and behavioural patterns.

How to change your inner monologue: are you your own worst critic, or your number one cheerleader?

Giving yourself credit can be hard at the best of times, but recognising true achievements throughout a pandemic is a challenge that most of us have never faced (and hopefully will never face again). Focusing on the narratives we portray about ourselves, as well as what other people say about us is important for us to recognise our value.

A lot of focus recently has gone on the term gaslighting – a form of psychological abuse, where an individual  makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or recollection of events. It is possible to do this to ourselves, with so many of us certain that we are suffering from imposter syndrome, convinced of our own incompetence and that we are ultimately undeserving of success.

By spending excessive periods of time with the same people, or even ourselves, we can be at risk of being gaslighted – without even recognising it. For the sake of your future happier and healthier self, it is important to recognise gaslighting when it is happening and to turn it into self-affirmation wherever possible.

Below is a handy table to help you.

GaslightingSelf- gaslightingSelf- affirmation
You’re just imagining things, making up problems.I’m going mad, I can’t trust my own judgements.My experience of this situation is valid and my feelings are real.
You’re just overreacting and being a sensitive Sally.I’m too emotional, I’m being hypersensitive.Displaying emotion isn’t something to be shamed. My emotions should be recognised and actioned on.
If you loved me, you would just do it for me.I am failing at everything, I am a problem, I need to fix this and be better.Love requires boundaries, which must be respected for a healthy relationship. I do not deserve to be manipulated.
This is all your fault.I always ruin everything – I have caused all of the issues.Blaming me entirely for a situation, doesn’t help and doesn’t make it true. I can take responsibility for my part only and work towards a solution.
I only said/ did that to you because of the way you reacted.I bring out the worst in people, I just can’t get things right.Another person’s behaviour is their responsibility. I can only control my actions and am responsible for my behaviour.

Self affirmation, as stressed throughout this article, is a practice that we all must reinforce to improve our health. It is not something that comes overnight and has instantaneous effects – it is a habit we choose to enforce each and everyday. It is a habit that can have numerous benefits, the true extent of which we are only beginning to truly understand. 

You possess all the qualities you need to be extremely successful, so what else are you waiting for? Today is the perfect time to start practicing some self affirmations.