Mantras & Affirmations Can Only Go So Far: 5 Things I Do When They Fall Short
Six years ago I was recruited by a producer at The Rachael Ray Show. I thought I was about to have the biggest break of my food blogging career...until she revealed she was looking for couples who had design disagreements that a celebrity designer could help them resolve on-air.
Still hopeful that simply being on set could somehow explode my new plant-based endeavor, I quickly replied, "YES, WE HAVE A DESIGN DISAGREEMENT!" and onto the show my then-boyfriend and I went. The disagreement? Affirmations.
The appeal of affirmations, mantras, and all things positive.
I stuck them above the desk, on the fridge, beside the bed, under the mirrors, in the produce drawers, on top of the toilet. I was a mantra maniac who was singlehandedly keeping colored markers, index cards, and painters' tape in business.
"My outer world is a reflection of my inner world." "My happiness is a choice." "I am creating a life I love." Everywhere I looked these positive affirmations were looking back at me, reminding me that my thoughts create my reality, so I better think the best thoughts.
And these good thoughts felt good...when I felt good. Repeating them during positive moments was like adding some rainbow sprinkles to an already awesome ice cream sundae: totally synergistic. Adding some rainbow sprinkles to a burnt lasagna? Not so much. During life's messier moments, I noticed that mantras actually started to become part of the problem.
Where happy words fall short.
On the days when I was, as I now know, clinically depressed, seeing these positive, all-loving phrases was like pouring gas on the flame of my pain. It made me feel broken beyond repair.
I suspect I'm not alone in feeling this way: There is some research to show that suppressing difficult feelings and burying emotions can harm mental health. Studies have also found that getting in the habit of accepting challenging emotions can make us more resilient moving forward.
When we don't allow ourselves to own and process our negative thoughts, they have a way of building up. Judgment does, too. On days when it's impossible to feel good vibes only, we blame ourselves—which can just make us feel bad about feeling bad.
So now, when I notice that reaching for positive thoughts seems to require a ladder I don't have access to, these are the things I do to care for myself instead:
1. I sweat.
Just as sweating helps move physical toxins out of my body, it's a godsend for helping move negative energy out of my head. Study after study has shown how aerobic exercise can ease depression and anxiety symptoms by flooding our brains with those feel-good endorphins we learned about in Legally Blonde.
Getting hot and sweaty also helps me get out of my head and into my body, which can stop the not-so-merry-go-round of negative thinking. I've found that if a run or a spin class is out of the realm of the day's possibility, as brisk a walk as I can muster can help just as much.
A rule of thumb: If your deodorant's firing, your neurotransmitters are, too.
2. I talk (or write).
So often just getting negative feelings out of the head and onto the table is healing, whether that "table" is a conversation with a mental health professional or an intimate session with a journal. Saying or writing my truth somehow dissipates it, at least a little.
I can start a therapy session weepy and wrap up hopeful, and the pressure of a thought can go from a 10 to a 4 in the process of me writing about it.
3. I medicate.
Yep. Whether it's with an antidepressant prescription from my doctor or a relaxing supplement (also with the blessing of my doctor), staying on the ball with my medication is clutch. While not a miracle cure in and of themselves, these tools help me appreciate myself for doing literally everything in my power to take care of me. I don't think that believing in medicinal mushrooms (love you, reishi) and believing in medicinal medicine need to be mutually exclusive.
4. I rest.
I've heard it said that "rest is a power move," and that it is! Sometimes, if it's too hard to repeat "I am worthy" I'll show myself instead—with a bath, a nap, or a seat outside or on a comfy couch.
Whatever I do, I focus my attention on my senses: the feeling of the pillow under my head, my breath, the sensation of the water in the tub, the smell of the bath salts or a candle nearby, the clouds in the sky, the trees nearby, whatever I can lock into outside of my own thoughts.
5. I goldilocks my thoughts.
A thought I often have is "it's all over. I'm screwed." When I think that, rather than try to leap myself to "everything is working out on my behalf" which, in a challenging head space seems like an unrealistic fairytale, I'll climb to "I get over this every time. I have the tools. I have the strength. I believe I can make it through this."
I've found that the leap from negative thoughts to positive ones can be daunting. Medium thoughts feel more in the realm of possibility. Like in the Goldilocks story, my inner dialogue becomes the middle porridge. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right.
Though I still have a few staple mantras I say during tough times, these days I'm much more focused on caring for my thoughts than drowning them out with affirmations. Pairing mantras with these more active self-care tools feels less like disowning my inner dialogue and more like learning to befriend it.