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Many of us are familiar with the story of the little engine who could. And while it’s a story about perseverance, in some ways it is also a story about the power of having a personal mantra.
Because, as UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, explains – when we think we can, we can.
“When we think a thought repeatedly, it strengthens neural circuits in the brain. The more we think a thought, the stronger the circuit grows,” she said.
The unfortunate part is that most of us have patterns of thinking that limit our potential. Mirgain uses the example of a cross country ski track – our thoughts, like skis, create deep grooves that can make it difficult to get out of the rut. We follow the same pattern over and over again, which can lead to greater stress and ineffective ways of coping with situations.
Instrument of the mind
Enter the mantra, or personal affirmation.
Mirgain explains that Mantra’s have been around for thousands of years, and are used in many different practices to help quiet the mental chatter and strengthen control of the mind – it’s very meaning is “instrument of the mind.”
“Mantras are powerful, personal motivational statements that help us get into a different mindset,” Mirgain said. “When our minds are telling us we can’t do something, the mantra helps to remind us that we can.”
She says we’re not responsible for our first thought, but we are for our second. The first is our immediate reaction to a situation or stressor. Our second thought should be intentional. Once we react we can pause and ask – am I thinking in a positive way that will help the situation, or am I letting doubts and fears take over? That’s where mantras come in.
Mantras take many different forms. For the engine, it was, of course, "I think I can." For the rest of us, it could be a simple word like “breathe,” while for others it might be a phrase or even a short prayer. The key is to pick something that is meaningful for you.
“An athlete I once worked with used different mantras that she had programmed to pop up on her smart phone before a race. She would repeat 'power,' 'fierce' and 'fast' to focus herself before a race, when an opponent passed her and to push herself at the end when she needed the last burst of speed," Mirgain said.
By using a mantra, we are refocusing our thoughts and the more we practice it, the easier it becomes. She explains that it’s a health habit – like practicing mindfulness or even exercise. And there are many benefits, from something as simple as boosting our mood, to developing resilience and managing our stress.
“Anxiety is increasingly prevalent in people’s daily lives. Many are walking around in a constant state of being on edge, which makes it harder to be resilient and can even leave you feeling more anxious and out of control,” she said. “Mantras help give us hope and a sense of empowerment.”
The other benefit that mantras provide is that they can help us achieve our goals. When we've set our sights high and are working to stretch beyond our comfort zone, it can be easy to feel daunted. Setbacks may even take on a greater meaning. But reminding ourselves that "this is only temporary" or "from the rain comes flowers," it can help us refocus on our goals.
Once you have a mantra, Mirgain recommends putting it in a place where you’ll be reminded of it. Like the athlete, you can have it pop up on your phone, or maybe it’s a post-it note on your computer or a decorative sign. Keep it close so when you're uncertain of whether you can make it up that steep hill, you'll remember to think that you can.