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Can You Change Your Mindset With Positive Mantras?

4 MIN READ • 3rd July 2020

Whether it’s a running sesh, a yoga class or simply playing with your kids – here’s the latest news and views on how to move more this month

Go hard, or go home; Harder, better, faster, stronger; Inhale love, exhale fear. From calendars to T-shirts, positive phrases pop up all over the place. But while they might do brilliantly for advertisers, could they actually help you live a happier life? There’s certainly evidence to suggest it. People under pressure at work apparently perform better after boosting their confidence with self-affirmations. Gym bunnies should take note too – positive self-talk combined with goal-setting and imagery has been shown to improve sports endurance, in a study from The Journal of Sports Medicine. And one enormous study – involving 44,000 participants – found those speaking positively to themselves (things like ‘I can do better next time’) performed better than a control group that didn’t, at every stage of a competitive task. Intrigued? Here’s how to harness the power of words.

What exactly is a mantra?

While they’re now generally used to sell products, the mantra actually has its origins in spirituality. These sacred Sanskrit words, phrases or sounds were designed to be chanted out loud or internally to achieve enlightenment, and are more than 3,000 years old. If you’ve ever ‘ohm’ed in a yoga class, that’s the basic principle. Over centuries, they’ve transformed in style, and are more often a specific phrase or word designed to encourage and motivate you into selfimprovement, whether it’s for work, fitness or family life.

How does self-talk work?

While you might feel a bit self-conscious talking to yourself, there’s method in the madness: “Areas of the brain to do with reward are particularly stimulated by positive statements about the future,” says Christopher Cascio, who was part of a study on affirmations and the brain, published in The Journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. “Positive self-talk was shown to make people more receptive and positive, and it helped increase willpower with exercise.” In short, a well-chosen positive phrase could make the difference between having a lie-in or going for that run. “Mantras follow some of the basic principles of cognitive behavioural therapy,” says Ann Macaskill, professor of health psychology at Sheffield Hallam University. “We have various automatic thoughts that we’ve picked up throughout our lives, some of which may be selfdefeating or undermine our self-esteem. These habitual negative thoughts are highly practised, so we need cues to shake us out of them – and mantras can work really well.” Plus, repeating your go-to happy phrase has the added bonus of crowding out any negative thoughts, so no more ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’m not good enough’.

How to find your mantra

In essence, mantras need to make you feel more positive, and encourage you to dig deep – whether that’s to achieve Nirvana, fitness greatness or just help you resist the lure of that cheese sitting in your fridge. They don’t have to be complicated, in fact, you could just choose a word that represents how you’d like to feel – whether that’s dynamic, creative, focused, calm, balanced or something else entirely. Want to work a bit harder? Go for a sentence. “The same phrases won’t work for everyone, they need to be personalised,” says Ann. “The more focused they are, the more powerful the effect.” Phrases are particularly good at helping to break a particular habit or behaviour that’s making you unhappy. “We often have a general feeling of unease but we can’t tell what’s caused it, so take a few minutes to sit and reflect on those internal messages you’re giving yourself. First ask yourself, ‘What am I telling myself in this situation?’ For example, if there’s something your partner does that regularly makes you feel angry, do you tell yourself that you’re out of control? Secondly, work out how you would like to feel, so in that example, ‘I’d like to feel that I have control over my emotions’. Then work out what you would need to tell yourself to make that change, so you could use a mantra such as, ‘Only I have control over how I feel’.”

When to use them

Write your chosen phrase down somewhere noticeable – beside your bed, next to the front door or by your desk – and change it frequently so you don’t become immune to its effects. “It might be useful to have a little pack of cards with different phrases that you can revise and review,” says Ann. “Swapping them regularly will keep them fresh.” If you have a specific goal in mind, a mantra could work perfectly, as long as you don’t aim too high in one go: “It’s better to break down big goals into smaller targets to help you stay focused,”says Ann. So instead of ‘I will run a marathon’, it might be better to try ‘I can run 5k in 20 minutes’, ‘I won’t stop running’ or even ‘Running brings me joy’.” Focus on your short-term win, and then adjust your mantra to hit the next level – before you know it, you’ll have reached your ultimate goal.

Stuck for inspiration? Borrow one of these:

‘Try anything twice’ – Professional dancer Julianne Hough likes to push herself.

‘I love and approve of myself. I rejoice in who I am, and it’s OK to express myself. I am enough’ – Queen of calm, Fearne Cotton, combines multiple phrases to top-up her self-love.

‘Imperfectly perfect’ – Model and body-positive activist Iskra Lawerence says this to herself to help take the pressure off.

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