I woke up, and it hit me. The intensity of feeling stuck and overwhelmed consumed me; like I couldn’t manage even the most basic tasks today. Yesterday I was happy as Larry, but today, I just couldn’t cope. Okay, breathe, reconnect.
I feel better, but the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness remains. I have so much I need to do. I can’t. I just want to stay in bed. But that thought also makes me anxious.
The panic starts again. Breathe. You’re OK. Repeat your affirmations; I can and I will, I can and I will, I can and I will.
Unhealthily coping with feeling stuck and overwhelmed
Unfortunately, I am all too familiar with the above situation. I can’t count how many times in my life this has happened. Often it’s hormonal; sometimes, it’s connected to me being stressed and overworked; other times, it just completely comes out of nowhere, and I can’t explain. This feeling hits me like a tone of bricks the moment I wake up.
When I was younger, I didn’t know how to cope with this. It’s strange considering that teenagers are the most prone to irrational mood swings, but they didn’t teach us any coping mechanisms. I even took psychology, but positive psychology wasn’t really talked about yet. I saw counselors a few times, but I didn’t find having a stranger stare at me while I vented my problems helpful; I could do that with my friends.
So I took to coping using tools that many people turn to; drugs and alcohol. If I was upset, weed calmed me down. Alcohol was a distraction that made me laugh. And they both successfully made me forget.
But they came with their issues, and self-medicating with substances isn’t a successful long-term strategy for becoming a healthy, well-adjusted, happy adult.
Enter the power of affirmations
In my mid-twenties, I was ready to make a change and explore healthy ways of coping with depression and overwhelm. Affirmations came to me naturally. I knew the problem was in my head, so that’s what I needed to address.
The premise is simple; say nice, uplifting things to yourself whenever unhelpful or frankly cruel thoughts arise. Easier said than done, but with practice, it becomes second nature. So instead of allowing your inner dialog to say “I can’t,” simply change it to “I can!”
While there are so many tools that help combat overwhelm and uplift you, like exercise, eating a healthy diet, journaling, and meditations, and you should incorporate these into your routine for a multi-tier plan of attack, affirmations are the simplest. Affirmations are my first point of call because otherwise, I would never get to anything else. They are the story you tell yourself to find joy and challenge yourself to face new challenges.
Affirmations change your brain
When something threatens our self-conception, people have a tendency to become defensive. Using self-affirmations helps expand people’s views of their world. When faced with potentially threatening situations, they are more able to broaden their perspective on the situation rather than lash out to protect their self-image (Critcher and Dunning, 2014).
Neuroscientists studying affirmations have discovered that repeating them literally changes your brain. In one study using MRI technology (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), researchers found more activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) of the brain in participants that used self-affirmations before receiving health messaging. The self-affirmation participants were later more likely to increase their activity levels to benefit their health. In the brain, our VMPFC is connected to our self-related processing and positive valuation abilities. Those who didn’t self-affirm core values prior to receiving important health messages relating to their activity levels were less open to the messaging, were more likely to become defensive, and ultimately didn’t change their behavior for their own good (Falk etc. al., 2015).
Heathly coping with the stress of feeling stuck and overwhelmed
When faced with situations where we feel we’ve lost control and our self-esteem and identity are threatened, we tend to get stressed. It’s not unusual when faced with a situation like a job loss that anyone would react negatively. This is what researchers Weinsfield and colleagues found in 2001. Not surprising, right. But the interesting aspect in their study was that when people engaged in activities that re-affirmed their integrity, their stress levels dropped.
Repeating affirmations helps reduce stress because your perspective of the world is more expansive. As a result, it becomes easier to adapt to change. You become more resilient and able to see the silver lining. You remind yourself of your value which makes it easier to change your behavior for your own good.
How to start using affirmations
Using affirmations is simple. It’s free, and you can do it whenever you like, no one has to know. You can repeat affirmations as often as you like; in fact, you should repeat them constantly when you first start.
The basic rule of thumb is to say your affirmation three times in the morning, three times midday, and three times at night. You can write them down, say them out loud, or just repeat them in your mind — the more, the merrier, literally.
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Take charge of your thoughts
So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, or you get home and grab a glass of wine, or simply can’t drag yourself out of bed like me, start by saying something nice to yourself and witnessing the effect. I promise that before it feels empowering, it will feel icky and fake. An internal battle will begin “I can, I can’t, I can, no I can’t!” But the trick is to say your affirmation louder and more often than the current limiting self-talk.
The more you repeat yourself, the more natural the affirmation will become. Eventually, it will be you. Occasionally you may get a little whisper telling you, “I can’t,” or it will scream at you from nowhere, but all it will take is calming, reassuring yourself, “I can, I’ve got this,” and it will shut up.
Affirmations alone may not be enough to rid yourself of feeling stuck and overwhelmed altogether, but they are a proven coping mechanism to change inner self-talk. They turn stressful and overwhelming situations into temporary hurdles you will overcome rather than a never-ending burden. Affirmations changed my life, and if you use them with conviction, they will change yours too.
Critcher, C. R., & Dunning, D. (2015). Self-affirmations provide a broader perspective on self-threat. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(1), 3–18. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0146167214554956
Falk, E. B., O’Donnell, M. B., Cascio, C. N., Tinney, F., Kang, Y., Lieberman, M. D., … & Strecher, V. J. (2015). Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(7), 1977–1982. Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/112/7/1977
Wiesenfeld, B.M., Brockner, J., Petzall, B., Wolf, R., & Bailey J. (2001). Stress and coping among layoff survivors: A self-affirmation analysis. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping: An International Journal, 14, 15–34. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2002-10891-001