The Science of Affirmations: The Brain’s Response to Positive Thinking

Lisa A. Koosis
Last updated:
Brindusa Vanta, MD, DHMHS
Medical editor
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Lisa A. Koosis Affirmations are positive statements intended to promote self-belief and motivation...

Affirmations are positive statements intended to promote self-belief and motivation. They have shown some effectiveness in improving self-esteem and resilience.[31] 

Although some people may consider positive affirmations pseudoscience, the practice of using empowering self-talk for personal benefit has been researched in scientific studies, and researchers suggest there are benefits associated with this practice. The research is ongoing, as more studies are needed to confirm the benefits of positive thinking fully.


Disciplines, such as affective neuroscience, which investigates how the brain processes emotions, are contributing to current knowledge of the role positive and negative emotions and thoughts play in an individual’s overall well-being.(1) Moreover, recent studies have linked affirmations to concrete physical and mental gains in areas such as health, learning, and interpersonal relationships.(2)

Because positive affirmations work by replacing negative thought patterns with healthier ways of thinking, they can have a positive impact on the brain and body.(3) By promoting positive thoughts and affirming an individual’s core values, these mantras encourage productive responses to challenging situations.

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Individuals who practice positive affirmations may also experience increased self-confidence and self-worth and fewer harmful consequences of stress on the body and mind. That may include reduced production of cortisol, a stress hormone. Increased cortisol levels have been linked with various physical and mental problems, such as weight gain, sleep difficulties, and increased risk of heart disease.(4)

This article delves into the effectiveness of affirmations, examining evidence-based strategies for their application in personal growth. We explore the potential benefits and limitations of affirmations, offering insight into their practical implementation and their role in psychological well-being.

What Are Self-Affirmations?

By definition, self-affirmations are empowering, positive statements that assert one’s own value or worth.(5) Individuals may recite these mantras either out loud or silently to boost confidence, maintain self-integrity, reduce negative self-talk, and soothe anxiety during challenging situations

Self-affirming statements are typically designed to transform negative thoughts into positive ones, serving as a catalyst for positive changes in physical and mental health. Practicing positive affirmations may also help individuals create a sense of future orientation, which helps them focus on actionable steps to achieve their goals.(6)

Affirming messages may differ from person to person, reflecting what’s important to the individual, including their:(7)

  • Goals
  • Interests
  • Aspirations
  • Core values
  • Personal history

What Is the Science Behind Positive Affirmations?

The success of positive daily affirmations may have roots in neuroscience, which explores the structure and function of the human nervous system. Through repetition of affirming statements, the brain can form new neural pathways, which create physical connections to these repeated thoughts.(8)

Essentially, strengthening these pathways makes it easier for the mind to return to these positive statements and thinking patterns rather than falling back into negative thinking. Eventually, this can lead to positive mental and physical outcomes associated with self-related thoughts, such as enhanced self-esteem and confidence.(9)

The Self-Affirmation Theory

The self-affirmation theory suggests that people are genetically wired to see themselves as competent and noble. When a person or situation challenges these deeply rooted beliefs, it impacts self-related processing, which aids in defining the “self.”(10) Ultimately, this can cause psychological distress or discomfort and may result in negative feelings, low self-esteem, or a reduced sense of self-competence.(11)

The affected individual may try to eliminate or reduce this discomfort through self-affirmation. These empowering messages can reinforce their confidence in their core values and beliefs and may help create a positive valuation of self.

Recent scientific studies have examined the self-affirmation theory’s potential merit. They’ve also explored how positive affirmations may create beneficial outcomes for mental health and physical health and well-being.

The results showed that positive affirmations can deliver long-term benefits by creating a positive feedback loop between the self and an individual’s ability to adapt over time. Self-affirmations may also reduce the threat presented by challenges to an individual’s self-valuation.(12)

Effectiveness of Affirmations: What Does Science Say?

There is a wealth of research related to the effectiveness of positive affirmations. One study examining the effects of positive self-statements found that people with low self-esteem experienced worse self-esteem and lower mood after repeating positive affirmations. On the other hand, people with high self-esteem experienced a boost in mood and self-esteem after repeating affirmations.[31]

Another study investigated the effectiveness of affirmations in reducing stress responses. The researchers found that people who engaged in self-affirmation tasks exhibited reduced neural activity in regions associated with threat processing and stress reactivity, leading to lower stress levels.[32]

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new neural connections in response to experience and learning. This process is central to understanding how positive affirmations work. Studies using neuroimaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have demonstrated that engaging in positive self-affirmations can activate brain regions associated with positive emotion regulation and reward processing.[33]

However, it’s important to recognize the limitations of affirmations as well as how they may affect people differently. The same neuroimaging study suggests that the efficacy of affirmations may vary depending on individual differences and context.[33] Plus, the effectiveness of affiramtions may be affected by factors like the person’s mindset and the specificity of the affirmations used.[32]

friends practicing affirmations outside

The Neuroscience Behind Positive Thinking

Recent research into the brain’s response to positive and negative thinking and emotions involved the use of neuroimaging techniques like high-tech scans that can provide information about changes in the brain’s activity. These studies suggested that happier individuals — those prone to positive sentiments — may be less reactive to emotional stimuli than negative thinkers.

Consequently, they may be better able to regulate their emotional reaction to stressful situations. That’s likely because, in happier individuals, the amygdala, a brain area that regulates emotions and encodes memories, may be less responsive to negative stimuli.(13)

Scientific evidence also suggests that techniques, such as mindfulness and other forms of meditation, may affect how the brain responds to emotional stimuli. For example, individuals who practice self-affirmation focusing on future-oriented values may show heightened activity in the brain systems responsible for self-processing and valuation compared to individuals who don’t.

One study, in particular, showed how self-affirmation alters the brain’s reward system, activating areas responsible for creating associations between positive stimuli and positive outcomes.(14) Consequently, individuals who have a positive mental image and a strong feeling of self-integrity, may more strongly associate positive affirmations with desired outcomes.

Psychological Theory

Psychological theories provide an evidence-based framework for understanding aspects of human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For example, self-affirmation theory suggests that the ultimate goal of the self is to protect its self-identity and core personal values.(15) This theory may explain why self-affirmation effects may be so beneficial for an individual’s mental health.

Theoretical approaches to psychology typically fall into five main categories.(16)

  • Biological: Biological theories postulate that thoughts, feelings, and actions have biological roots, such as brain structure, hormones, genetics, and the immune system.
  • Behavioral: This approach typically looks at how environmental factors affect a person’s physical behavior.
  • Cognitive: The cognitive approach explores the impact of environmental factors on human behaviors. It revolves around memory, attention, perception, and other mental processes.
  • Humanistic: Humanistic theory emphasizes the whole person. It suggests that behavior is impacted by an individual’s self-image and inner feelings.
  • Psychodynamic: Based on the teachings of famous psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, the psychodynamic approach correlates childhood events with adult behaviors.

Although psychological science aims to study human behavior and its underpinnings, validating psychological theories can be tricky. Many of these theories are abstract or broad in scope, and finding and providing relationships between psychological variables and resulting emotional health or physical behaviors is challenging for researchers.(17)

How Do Daily Affirmations Work?

Self-affirmation has known benefits for physical and mental health. For many practitioners, affirming statements promote self-confidence and change their view of their own perceived abilities in a positive way. However, scientists continue to study to better understand how and why affirmations work.

One recent study suggests that sending self-relevant positive messages may activate the brain’s self-related processing and reward pathways. Consequently, individuals who practice positive affirmation may experience positive changes, such as fewer negative thoughts and a healthier response to stress.(18)

The success of self-affirmation rests largely in repetition. According to recent research, people may be more likely to consider repeated information true than statements they’ve only heard once. Essentially, repetition contributes to the ease of self-related processing, which often creates an illusion of truthfulness.(19) By repeating positive statements associated with self rather than expressing negative thoughts, those messages are more likely perceived as true.

What’s the Difference Between Positive Affirmations & Positive Thinking?

Both positive affirmations and positive thinking use optimistic thoughts to lead to self-improvement. However, these two interrelated ideas have significant distinctions.

Positive affirmations are empowering words and phrases that practitioners recite repeatedly to challenge negative thoughts and improve self-perception. Positive thought involves focusing regularly on healthy thoughts and beliefs, even when things don’t go as planned—positive thinking is more related to optimism and isn’t a specific and intentional practice.

Essentially, positive affirmations are often focused on specific goals or areas for self-improvement while positive thoughts apply to all aspects of one’s life. Affirmations may be used as a tool to create a mindset that’s conducive to positive thought patterns.

How to Create and Use Affirmations Effectively

Creating your own affirmations and using them effectively doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult. Here are some steps and tips:

  • Identify areas for growth: Reflect on parts of your life where you seek improvement or empowerment, such as self-confidence or relationships.
  • Frame statements positively: Phrase affirmations in the present tense, using positive language, focusing on what you want to manifest or cultivate in your life.
  • Make them specific and believable: Ensure your affirmations are realistic and align with your values and goals.

Here are some examples of personalized affirmations for common goals or challenges:

  • For self-confidence: “I am worthy of love and respect.”
  • For health and wellness: “I nourish my body with healthy choices and honor its needs.”
  • For abundance and prosperity: “I attract abundance and opportunities into my life.”

Once you have created personalized affirmations, you’ll want to create a routine that works for you, one that you can stick to. Here are some tips:

  • Choose optimal times: Incorporate affirmations into your routine, such as in the morning when you wake up or before bedtime, whatever works best for you.
  • Repeat regularly: Consistency is key when it comes to making sure affirmations are effective. Repeat them aloud once or several times per day.
  • Use visualization: Use visualization techniques along with your affirmations can help you imagine achieving your goals and embodying the qualities you state in your affirmations.

a man practicing affirmations at home

How to Do Affirmations at Home

Self-affirmation practice can have numerous mental and physical benefits, but how an individual chooses to self-affirm is a crucial part of its success. For the best outcome, affirmations should be focused and consistent. Messages should be repeated multiple times each day, either at set times or before or after challenging events, such as job interviews or family meetings. Fortunately, creating a self-affirmation routine at home is easy and can be maximized by following the guidelines below.

Find a Calm & Quiet Space

Delivering effective self-directed messages requires focus, so it’s important to find a calm, quiet space for affirmation practice. To avoid interruptions, choose a room with a door that can be shut and locked. If possible, opt for a calming, clutter-free space free from noise. Serene outdoor spaces, such as a secluded backyard or screened-in porch, may also be ideal for affirmation practice.

By choosing an ideal space, the practitioner can more easily enter the proper mindset for practicing. To do so, remain calm during the recitation and try to form a positive mental image that embodies each message.

Avoid Using Stock Affirmations

The most impactful messages are ones that have personal meaning, so avoid stock affirmations. Creating one’s own affirmations can begin by identifying goals, desires, and core values and translating them into positive statements, such as, “I can speak up on my own behalf.”

To improve the outcome, stick with realistic, believable messaging. For example, stating, “I take steps each day to further my career” is realistic. Stating, “I will be president of the company in 5 years,” probably isn’t. It may also be helpful to adapt affirmations to situations that arise, such as creating spur-of-the-moment statements to provide motivation for an impromptu board meeting.

Writers should never include negative thoughts in a positive affirmation. Instead, individuals who are creating their own affirmations should aim to change negative sentiments into positive messages.

Keep Your Affirmations Future Oriented

Most affirmations use present tense phrases, often beginning with “I can” or “I am.” However, messages should typically have a future orientation.

Essentially, future-oriented messages focus forward, incorporating actionable steps that can drive the affirmer toward their goals.(20) For example, an individual who wishes to lose weight may create a future-focused positive statement by saying, “I choose healthy foods to nourish my body and mind.” To be effective, a positive affirmation should be grounded in the present, as if it’s already happening, and inspire the user to take steps to reach their goals.

a woman smiling after practicing positive self affirmations

The Brain’s Response to Self-Affirmation

Daily positive affirmations can change the way brain systems respond to the messages they receive, particularly when it comes to self-related information processing. The subsequent behavior change an individual engages in may lead to beneficial changes overall.(21)

Proven benefits of self-affirmation include a stronger sense of personal worth, less negative self-talk, and reduced anxiety and defensiveness in challenging situations.(22) It may even have a beneficial effect on people dealing with health-deteriorating stress or chronic physical pain.

You Can Overcome Self-Sabotaging

Self-sabotage occurs when an individual intentionally or unintentionally creates barriers to their own success. It may take the form of procrastination or perfectionism, and when it happens regularly, it can impact almost every area of the self-saboteur’s life, including their employment, relationships, and overall health.(23)

Positive affirmations can help stop this cycle by interrupting the negative thought patterns that result in low self-esteem, fear of failure, and other causes of self-sabotaging. By reasserting one’s closely held values, affirmation intervention can create a healthier mindset. Affirming statements that challenge problematic “I can’t” beliefs promote self-confidence and illuminate actionable steps an individual can use to restore self-competence and work effectively toward achieving their goals.

You May Regain a Positive Sense of Self

An individual’s sense of self reflects their feeling of uniqueness and identity.(24) Negative feelings and events can undermine this crucial component of who that person really is.(25)

Affirmations challenge the unhelpful beliefs that can threaten the self. By reaffirming core values through empowering, personalized positive affirmations, individuals may reclaim a positive self-view. These beneficial messages can also reduce the defensiveness associated with threats to an individual’s sense, so they can remain open to change and improvement.(26)

It Can Reduce Negative Self Talk & Negative Feelings

Regularly engaging in negative self-talk can be detrimental to one’s mental well-being. Often repeated phrases, such as “I’m just useless” or “I’ll never be good enough,” can lead to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Ultimately, this self-directed criticism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, damaging work and personal relationships and resulting in isolation.(27)

When recited regularly, positive affirmations can be an antidote to negative feelings and self-talk. Although it may take time, by repeating positive (or at least neutral) messaging to oneself, it’s possible to rewire the brain for positivity.

It Can Send Health Messages to Your Body to Reduce Physical Pain

Modern scientific research suggests a strong connection between the mind and body. Although practicing self-affirmation can’t completely eliminate pain, it can change the way the brain perceives it, reducing unpleasant and uncomfortable physical sensations.

Beneficial thinking techniques, such as positive daily affirmations related to pain relief, can retrain the brain to focus on the positive. In turn, this may enhance the effectiveness of medications and other pain relief therapies and may decrease health-deteriorating stress and anxiety that often accompanies physical pain.(28)

It May Help Change Your Negative Thinking Patterns

Individuals may engage in various negative thinking patterns, including:(29)

  • Catastrophizing
  • Overgeneralizing
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • All-or-nothing categorizing

These thought patterns can negatively impact almost every aspect of someone’s life, including health, family, education, and employment.

Negative thought patterns associated with self-related criticisms typically won’t go away on their own. However, practicing affirmations can help individuals break through these repetitive thoughts, replacing them with more positive ways of thinking. Through repetition, positive daily affirmations can override harmful thought patterns by providing healthier, more realistic messages.(30)


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