As a clinician 8 years removed from graduate school, I have encouraged, and more than likely, annoyed a lot of people with the concept of affirmations. Positive affirmations to be precise. Because, honestly, what’s not to love about encouraging ourselves, reminding ourselves that we are capable, resilient, and worthy of love! Well, if those already are difficult words to buy into for yourself, then I can see how forcing them to be said may be cringy and unnatural. Powering through the uncomfortableness, however, can be rewarding to our self-esteem and strengthen our effective ability to cope.
What are affirmations?
Affirmations are simply statements that affirm something that is true. In good faith, we can affirm that the sun will rise and set, and that inevitably time will pass whether we want it to or not. We can also affirm our past experiences. How we were able to be resilient during a difficult time, and even though we still may be feeling the outcomes from it, we can affirm that we have persevered so far. The most important factor is accessing truth to push us through doubts and uncertainties.
Examples of positive affirmations:
I will get through this day
I had strength to get through this before
There are people that care about me
I can keep going
Now, it is important to note, then when offering ourselves positive affirmations, we may not fully believe what we are saying. It’s ok to not 100% agree! It can be challenging to tell ourselves that we are beautiful and strong when we feel ugly and weak. However, by pulling and creating positive thoughts, we are better able to challenge negative thoughts that arise from feelings. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy underlines the concept that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are independent, albeit highly influential of each other.
If we are feeling anxious, then it is common to have thoughts channel through an anxious lens. Trying to find an answer or a solution to immediately find relief, which isn’t always possible. If we are in an anxiety provoking situation, and the majority of our thoughts are perpetuating our anxiety, then it we can quickly become emotionally overwhelmed. This could potentially reinforce our anxiety response to the trigger when perhaps it is unreasonable to do so.
The benefits of “faking it”
Here’s a cringy statement, ‘Fake it until you make it.’ Whether you have actually been told that by an employer or a family member, I’m sure it wasn’t helpful. I hesitate to bring it up now but hear me out. When experiencing automatic negative thoughts on a regular basis, for our wellbeing, it would be important to balance the negativity. So, if a negative thought simply tells us, we are not good enough, in the long term it would be healthy for us to challenge it.
I am good enough!
I choose what thoughts define me.
But how do we draw a positive thought when we are not used to doing so in the first place. Dare I say it? Ok, I won’t, but by choosing to illicit a positive thought, over time it becomes much more natural to do so. We start to train our brain to respond this way through consistency and affirmations that draw from our perceived strengths. The most difficult part of this process is doing it initially because it feels awkward and not wholly true. This gets easier with practice and patience as our brain understands its ok, and maybe even nice, to be kind to ourselves.
If we imagine our stream of consciousness figuratively as a flowing river, we can picture the thoughts that pass down it. We don’t wholly have control over what we think, so what passes through can be unpredictable at times. Think of an affirmation as adding positivity to the river. The more we do so, the ecology of it will gradually change and accept the welcomed visitor.
Implementing Affirmations for OCD
When suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, affirmations can be a useful tool during high periods of stress. Helpful for reminding ourselves of our strengths and values despite our anxiety saying otherwise. The nature of OCD often prays on our vulnerabilities, bringing fear and anxiety to thoughts and situations that often doesn’t indicate the actual, primitive need for anxiety (to escape danger). Therefore, whether attempting to withstand anxiety, or trying to find relief from an onslaught of negative thoughts, affirmations can be a way to ground self and encourage ourselves to continue behaving in line with our values.
I have withstood this anxiety before.
I am capable of managing it.
I’m choosing for myself, not anxiety.
Difference between affirmations and reassurance?
When implementing affirmations while suffering from OCD, there are common causes of concern that I have had relayed to me. “Isn’t this reassurance?” being a common one. Now, it is important to distinguish the difference between affirmations and reassurance as one reinforces anxiety, while the other encourages us to endure it.
Reassurance is a common safety behavior that attempts to reduce anxiety through seeking a desired answer. It can end up inhibiting action from us over time if reassurance is not addressed. ‘Is this safe?’ ‘Can I do this?’ ‘What if something horrible is about to happen?’ These questions, laced with doubts, may not be answerable depending on the situation. Anxiety doesn’t always allow us the calmness to appropriately rationalize. Instead, it piles on more questions while preferring the quickest exit out of the situation.
If you have spent time undergoing treatment for OCD whether it be through Exposure & Response Prevention (ERP) or education, then you may be fully aware how it can be easy to enter in cycles that actually maintain anxiety. Through the act of safety behaviors or rituals that serve to lower the anxiety in the moment. Mental rituals such as reassurance or neutralization reinforce the idea that whatever thought or trigger warrants anxiety even if it isn’t necessarily reasonable to be anxious.
Affirmations aren’t used to assure us bad situation wouldn’t happen. They are used to encourage and bring our attention to non-distorted thinking. It is a skill to create and repeat affirmations, it takes time and patience. What affirmations would you like to tell yourself? Maybe you already do without realizing it! Either way, when I think of my river of consciousness, it isn’t a bad idea to add a dash of positivity when I’m feeling overwhelmed or a little down.
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