The human system is a very complex machine and there is still much we don’t understand about it, however there is much we do know about it, as well. One amazing discovery about the human brain is that there is a part of it called the reticular activating system (RAS) that – among other things – cannot differentiate between what you tell it and actual reality. This is the basic principle behind affirmations and gratitude.
Many years ago, when I was in my 20’s still, I was attempting to come out of the other end of a long term marijuana addiction that I had endured since my early teen years. At the same time I was also coping with the fact that I had allowed myself to be the victim of sexual predator. At the time I didn’t realise that’s what he was, it was many years later I finally pieced together that I had been groomed, manipulated, and taken advantage of sexually. All I knew back then was that I had let a much older man in a position of authority convince me to do things sexually that I did not want to do and the shame and self-disgust of this was significant.
During this difficult time my self-worth was at an all-time low. I was trying to change and improve my life but I was struggling. It was then that I learned about the benefits of affirmations. The psychologist I was seeing at the time suggested I write affirmations on paper and stick them all around my apartment as a constant reminder to myself about what I wanted to bring into my life and what I deserved to have. I did this and it was greatly successful. Everywhere I would turn in my home there would be a lovely eye catching photo with a typed up affirmation, reminding me of not only what I wanted to achieve, but also that I was worthy of achieving these things as well.
Somewhere along the way I had lost myself and taken on the projected feelings of others who had treated me poorly. I had lost every piece of self-worth that I once had and it had been replaced with very loud internal, negative and hateful self-chatter. This is something that I learned that I could change but it would take work to do so. Affirmations formed part of this work. Affirmations work because the part of the brain that can’t tell the difference between what you tell it and reality – the RAS, that I mentioned earlier – really, really can’t differentiate between the two. Because my self-talk had been replaced with negative, hateful bullying of myself, my brain started to believe what I was feeding it. It could no longer feel loving and worthy and happy because none of what I was feeding my brain was positive or loving or happy. Once I started affirmation work, my RAS started to make me feel different about myself – more positive again – because I was feeding it positive self-talk constantly, until I actually started to believe it. This is the power that the RAS has.
It wasn’t until many years later that I also learned about gratitude and how the RAS and gratitude could impact my life for the better as well, in similar ways that affirmations had. At this time, despite making significant progress and being in a much better place than I had previously been, I was still suffering from depression and had a long way to go. I stumbled onto the power of gratitude and this is when my life and depression completely changed – a huge 180° in fact. The simple act of searching for things to be grateful for in life every single day – as opposed to focusing on what was going wrong in life – has had a profound impact on my life and my mental health. I realised that the more I was focusing on the problems in my life, both past and present, the more I would remain stuck and unhappy. This is because I was continuously still filling my brain with negative thoughts. I had to learn to heal and let go of the past and stop focusing on it and letting it effect present day situations negatively and to change my view on the world overall. After so many past traumas and negative experience I was letting these things cloud the way in which I viewed the world. One tiny thing could go wrong and I would think that that the entire world was against me.
Instead of comparing myself to others who had been through less negative experiences and who I believed had more than me and always feeling like I was getting the short end of the straw, I started looking at the bigger picture of things. I started to look at all the people who had it far, far worse than me. I didn’t do this in an arrogant or mean way, I did this so that I could start to appreciate the things that I had in my life and to start becoming conscious and mindful of the reality of my life situation, not the negative and limiting perception of it that I had been feeding myself for so many years, keeping me stuck, without even realising it.
It wasn’t long until this simple act of searching for new and wonderful things in my day, impacted and changed my life significantly and my brain actually started to change the way it functioned (something called neuroplasticity). I was actually able to say goodbye to 17 long years of persistent and chronic major depression. This happened because I literally stopped focusing on the negatives and the problems in my day. That doesn’t mean that the negatives and problems stopped, it just means that I stopped giving them power by paying attention to them, focusing on them, thinking about them, and allowing them to have a hold over my day and my mood. At the same time as doing this I started to intently focus on the tiny, small and insignificant things that I usually took for granted and I started to pay more attention to these things. It wasn’t long until I was immensely and intensely grateful for things that had previously not even entered my thought process for consideration. Things like hot running water and clean drinking water; or being able to jump in my car and drive to the shops to get whatever food it is that I wanted to buy that day. These are all things that often get taken for granted by many because if we are so used to freely having these things. For millions and millions of people though, this is not something they have. These things that many of us consider basic necessities and take for granted are for many others unattainable things that they pray and long for.
The secret to affirmations and gratitude is that you must keep doing them. The brain has a way of becoming complacent and taking things for granted once we get use to them and it is our job to counteract that and keep it at the forefront of our mind that everything we have could be taken away at any given moment. This does not mean we are supposed to live in fear or anxiety that something bad will happen, it is just something to be mindful of. To actively remember that we are so incredibly lucky to have everything that we do and not to take it for granted because you just do not know how long it is going to last for.