How Affirmations Helped Me With My PMS
Lifestyle

This One Tiny Change Finally Helped Me To Get My PMS Under Control

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Every so often, maybe every three months or so, I get this horrible feeling about a week before my period. My friends, previously sweet and kind and thoughtful, suddenly seem uncaring. My career, which generally makes me very happy, suddenly feels like the most pointless thing in the world. My partner, the love of my life, the person who gets me, suddenly feels unreachable. These feelings are fleeting, and always superficial, but they’re definitely there and I can actually feel them sometimes, whooshing through my veins. Get it together, I used to tell myself internally, like a stern parent whispering in a child’s ear. Wait until your period is over before doing or saying anything rash.

I had this PMS-y feeling recently, while at home alone, ruminating on various negative thoughts in the bath. Round and round they went, like a washing machine, but less useful. You should be making more money by now, they said. How can you ever afford to raise a kid, or buy a house? They continued. Remember that one thing that person said the other day in passing? She obviously doesn’t like you. On and on they went. Have you lost your sparkle? You seem as though you’ve lost your sparkle. Eventually, something within me snapped, and I sat up in the bath, hair frothy with shampoo – an ancient forest creature emerging from the river – and then I opened my mouth and spoke out loud: “You are smart, you are sexy, and you are solid.”

I don’t know where the words came from, but they felt good to say, and they were louder than my thoughts. I said them again, but clearer this time: “You are smart, you are sexy, and you are solid.” Every time I said the sentence, I took a deep breath, so that my heart slowed down and I felt calmer. “You are smart, you are sexy, and you are solid.” By the time I got out of the bath, the negative thought patterns – previously all-consuming – had hushed to a barely-there whisper. And in that moment, I did feel smart and sexy and solid. Oh, I thought, almost laughing. That actually worked.

I’ve always dismissed the concept of “affirmations”. Like journalling and even mindfulness, it often sounded like the sort of vague technique pedalled by dewy-skinned A-listers or wellness influencers without real problems. If you’re having financial difficulties, for example, no amount of affirmations are going to get cash in the bank. There’s no manifesting your way out of a deep depression, and a gratitude journal sounds like the sort of thing Gwyneth Paltrow might flog on Goop for $300. Either way, affirmations always felt cringe to me, so I ignored them, in the same way you might ignore wishy-washy phrases like “live every day like it’s your last” or the immortal “live, laugh, love”.

But we also know that the brain is easily influenced – almost frighteningly so. Consider the idea of the “placebo effect”, for example, and the ways in which a placebo can sometimes be just as effective as the real thing. This is particularly remarkable when thinking about pain, and how simply believing in pain relief can – not always, but sometimes – encourage the body’s natural chemical processes for relieving pain. In other words: the mind is susceptible to trickery. And when humans focus their attention on something for long enough, in a sustained and deliberate way, they can actually rewire neural pathways. So it’s not a reach to suggest that positive affirmations might do the same thing.

This is an idea backed by a body of evidence. One study, for example, found that doing simple self-affirming exercises, like writing down core beliefs before an exam, significantly raised minority student achievement in school. Meanwhile, another study found that participants who affirmed their values significantly lowered their “cortisol responses to stress”. Yet another found that affirmations can activate the brain’s reward system. Essentially, affirming certain positive beliefs about yourself and what you stand for does actually have an impact on how your brain processes information. That inner voice isn’t just jabbering on with no consequence – it’s a reflection of your beliefs, which can in turn affect your behaviour and state of mind.

The other evening I was walking through central London on the way to conduct an interview, when I felt a little nervous. This is unusual for me. If you were to plug me into some sort of medical monitor while on the job, my heart rate would typically remain steady. But today felt different. Maybe it was because, again, I was due to get my period. Or maybe it was because I’d created some sort of pressure around this specific job. Either way, that negative voice piped up again: Are you really cut out for this? This time, though, I shut it down very quickly. I couldn’t say the affirmations out loud – I was on a busy road near Baker Street – but I repeated them in my head. “I am smart, I am sexy, and I am solid.” My heart slowed down. My mind focused.

I’m not saying that affirmations will solve every problem, or magically reinvigorate your sense of self. I’m not saying that you can “affirm” yourself out of a depressive episode, or that speaking positively to yourself is in any way akin to actual therapy or psychological treatment. What I am saying is that, with affirmations, I found a quick and easy way to snap myself out of negative thought patterns that just weren’t serving me in any meaningful way. And that can be very useful. More than just useful: it’s been a relief.

This article was originally published on British Vogue.

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