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Effective Affirmations to Alleviate Anxiety

By May 23, 2024June 4th, 2024No Comments

Mollie Swillum, LCSW, is a therapist at Relief Mental Health in Oak Brook, Ill.

Anxiety can manifest itself in unexpected ways. That’s why it’s important for people to understand there are simple techniques that are effective in reducing both the short- and long-term effects of anxiety. The good news is that the positive effects of techniques that work to relieve acute anxiety – like breathing exercises for a panic attack, for instance – are cumulative. The more you practice them, the better you get at them, and the better they get at reducing your anxiety symptoms. 

In fact, with repeated practice, you may be able to head off the symptoms of anxiety very quickly, with short, condensed versions of the techniques I share below. But if you’re new to using affirmations or other self-help approaches to reduce your anxiety symptoms, then I recommend not taking shortcuts, and doing the exercises as-is. Over time, you can adapt them to meet your needs by shortening or extending them, depending on what works for you and what you need in the moment.

Why Self-Help for Anxiety?

Because millions of people across the U.S. experience the symptoms of anxiety every year, and millions more experience the symptoms of anxiety at some point in their lives. The latest data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) shows the following prevalence of anxiety and anxiety disorders in the U.S.:

  • 19.1% of U.S. adults reported a past-year anxiety disorder
  • Women: 23.4%
  • Men: 14.3%
  • 31.1% of U.S. adults report an anxiety disorder during their lifetime
  • Mild impairment: 43.5%
  • Moderate impairment: 33.7% 
  • Serious impairment: 22.8% 

While the first-line treatment for anxiety is a combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes, almost all therapists recommend complementary strategies such as breathing techniques or affirmations to help offer a comprehensive approach to reducing the symptoms of anxiety. These techniques can also help people who have anxiety that doesn’t reach a clinical threshold, too.

Anxiety: Body and Breathing

Our bodies often react to things before our mind realizes what’s happening. This is true for anxiety and panic attacks:

We can find ourselves noticing our body reacting quicker than our brain can catch up.

That’s why breathing techniques and recentering physically is essential for an effective mental reset during an anxious moment, an anxiety attack, a panic attack, or anytime you feel overwhelmed by negative, anxious emotions. 

There’s a common misconception that meditation has to take a long time. Most people envision a process involving a 20-minute guided imagery session on a yoga mat – and most people struggle to make time for that consistently. But I have some good news:

You can get the benefits of meditation with a simple 60 second grounding exercise!

One of my favorite breathing techniques to suggest to clients is called “The 4-7-8 Exercise.”

Here’s how it works:

  1. Start by breathing in for four seconds.
  2. Place your hand on your diaphragm and hold your breath for seven seconds.
  3. Slowly exhale for eight seconds.
  4. Repeat three times.

That takes about a minute. 

Try it – it works!

Anxiety: Your Mind and Thoughts

Anxiety affects the body and the mind. The exercise above demonstrates a physical approach to reducing the symptoms of anxiety in the body. Now I’ll share two techniques for reducing the symptoms of anxiety in the mind, which often appear in the form of intrusive, anxious thoughts.

First, naming the thoughts and feelings helps. Here’s how:

  1. When you begin to feel anxious or have intrusive thoughts, don’t fight them: take a moment to label them.
  2. Make statements like this, either silently in your mind or out loud: “Right now, I am feeling…” and then describe exactly how you’re feeling, with as much detail as you can.
  3. This creates a great framework for remembering that anxiety is temporary and will pass.

Another skill to include in a short meditation session to address anxiety in your mind and thoughts is using affirmations. Many people with anxiety experience what we call ANTS: automatic negative thoughts. The thing about ANTS is that we can correct them with the opposite: automatic positive thoughts, which is another way of saying affirmations.

Think of it this way: 

When you let ANTS run around in your head, you’re practicing them and getting better at them without realizing it.

Now think of affirmations this way:

When you find and repeat affirmations, you’re practicing and getting better at them – and when you do them enough, they become the automatic thoughts, not the ANTS.

A study published in 2009 called “Attributions and Affirmations for Overcoming Anxiety and Depression” examined the impact of affirmations on anxiety and depression. Based on this research, the most effective affirmations for anxiety include:

The power to heal myself is within me. I am capable.

Many people live with this problem. I am not alone.

I can view this experience as an opportunity to learn and improve my life.

This will not last, even if at times it feels that way. In time, I will get better.

The researchers then identified the two affirmations that did not help people with anxiety:

God is watching over me and will help me heal.

Things could be worse. I have a lot to be thankful for.

In other words, in order to be effective, affirmations need to be simple and specific: I can do it, I am not alone, and it will get better’ are more effective than a general spiritual reassurance or a nonspecific recognition of gratitude.

More About Affirmations

Here’s a definition of affirmations from Psych Central. It’s simple and to the point, like the affirmations research shows are effective:

“Affirmations are positive statements you repeat to promote

 change in your life and ease your distress.”

Affirmations work – according to research published here and here – because they reinforce areas of the brain that assign value to future outcomes as opposed to past experiences, and reduce circulating levels of neurotransmitters associated with negative mood. This forward-thinking component of affirmations also resulted in increased physical activity following enhanced engagement of the valuation network in the brain, which also aligns with the finding that affirmations can reduce the amount of neurotransmitters associated with low mood circulating in our brains. 

With this in mind, I’ll offer five affirmations that can help with short-term anxiety, i.e. panic attacks or nerves before an important event, and five affirmations that can help with longer term, clinical anxiety. These affirmations are based on ideas from the Psych Central article mentioned above.

Five effective affirmations for acute anxiety:

  1. I am safe.
  2. I am in control.
  3. I am strong.
  4. I am loved and accepted.
  5. I have done this before and can do it again.

Five effective affirmations for persistent anxiety:

  1. I am enough.
  2. I am not alone
  3. I love myself.
  4. I can forgive myself for making mistakes, I am doing the best I can with what I have.
  5. I can handle whatever comes my way.

If you have anxiety, anxious thoughts, or get extreme nerves before an important event, try repeating those first five affirmations to yourself. If you have long-term, persistent anxiety, try repeating the second set of five affirmations.

However, if you experience anxious thoughts consistently and persistently, you may need to support your affirmations with more personalized responses.

When to Seek Professional Support for Anxiety

Therapeutic, research-driven interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) often include skills like these that address the physical and psychological components of anxiety pitfalls. CBT is a form of psychotherapy that helps people make the connection between thoughts and behavior, as well as teaches people how to restructure their thoughts in order to adjust their behaviors. 

If you have anxious thoughts but are unsure if you need professional support, consider these points:

  • Getting a professional mental health evaluation will not cause harm.
  • If you have a clinical anxiety disorder, a diagnosis can provide an answer or an outline for next steps

With those points in mind, ask yourself the following questions:

Have I had anxious thoughts every day for more than a month?

Do these thoughts cause significant emotional distress?

Do these thoughts impair my ability to fully engage in all aspects of my life, from relationships, to work, to academic or social gatherings?

If you answer “yes” to any of those questions, I suggest contacting a licensed mental health professional for further assistance.

Mollie Swillum

Therapist, Relief Mental Health in Oak Brook, Ill.

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