Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : May 30th 2013 Contents C20
body & soul
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Thursday, May 30, 2013
US Senator Al Franken may very well be the
reason so many of us are bashful about self-affir-
Franken, a comedian in the 1990s, brought us
what is undoubtedly one of the most well-known
--- and cringe-worthy --- affirmations of all time
through his Saturday Night Live character Stuart
Smalley. Smalley was the one who kept insisting,
"I m good enough, I m smart enough, and doggone
it, people like me!"
But what if self-affirmation isn t quite as awkward
as you imagine it to be? What if engaging in a
serious practice of self-affirmation could boost your
capacity to cope and to perform in challenging cir-
Instituting a self-affirmation practice, says J David
Creswell, assistant professor of psychology at
Carnegie Mellon University, may protect against
the damaging effects of high stress on creative prob-
lem-solving and performance under pressure.
The possibility of counteracting the effects of
stress in high-stakes situations caught my atten-
Last year, I had my brain mapped for a story to
find out how I handle stress. As part of the test,
I underwent a series of progressively more difficult
challenges while hooked up to a quantitative elec-
troencephalogram (also known as a qEEG).
The results revealed that while I perform optimally
when everything is going fine, in high-pressure sit-
uations, I begin to make mistakes --- lots of them.
I m also less likely to be able to recover and reset
after those errors. This, I found out later, is a common
occurrence among people.
So we know that we re likely to melt down when
things get hectic, but what exactly are we supposed
to do with that information? Creswell s research
may offer a remarkably effective and simple recourse.
As Creswell puts it, self-affirmation provides "an
easy and portable strategy that you can roll out
before you enter a high-pressure situation where
you are required to perform well," whether it s engag-
ing in public speaking, readying for an important
exam or giving a critical presentation to your boss
and her boss.
In their study, Creswell and his colleagues asked
participants about their stress levels over the previous
month. They then instructed half the subjects to
undertake a self-affirmation activity. These partic-
ipants ranked things --- friends, family, a hobby or
a religious value --- that were important to them
and wrote down a few sentences about why their
top-ranked value was important (this is a standard
self-affirmation exercise, Creswell says).
All participants were then asked to complete,
under time pressure, a series of challenging prob-
lem-solving tasks, for which they needed to use
creativity to generate the correct solutions.
The subjects who were suffering from high levels
of chronic stress in the past month had impaired
problem-solving performance by a wide margin.
They solved roughly 50 per cent fewer problems
than the group with low chronic stress.
The exception: those participants who had com-
pleted the self-affirmation.
"We found that self-affirmation completely elim-
inates the effects of chronic stress," Creswell
observed. "Those subjects managed to erase the
negative effects of the chronic stress on their prob-
In fact, the chronically stressed participants who
performed a self-affirmation performed as well as
the participants who reported having low chronic
stress levels. It s reflecting on an important personal
value, Creswell said. "We all thought the Stuart
Smalley s Gosh darn it, I really like myself bit was
hilarious, but that kind of affirmation may, in fact,
undermine the overall effect. Telling people to like
themselves more is definitely not the phenomenon
we are talking about."
Why not? Does telling yourself you re awesome
No, but it probably doesn t help,
either. According to Creswell, general
affirmations do not direct our attention
to anything concrete. For example,
telling an athlete to "focus" during the
heat of a competition does not help.
But telling that same athlete to "focus
on your breathing" does. In the same
way, the focus of self-affirmation should
'Self-affirmation beats stress'
YOUR DAILY HEALTH
News and advice
be on something specific and authen-
tic: for example, "I am a loving father,"
"I m a great tennis player" or "I spend
a lot of time volunteering for my
church." These are all values that you
can confirm, as opposed to something
vague like "I am awesome."
While research on the benefits of
self-affirmation goes back several
decades, we still don t have a good
understanding of the underlying path-
ways or why it produces such wide-
ranging effects, Creswell says.
The focus of self-affirmation should be on something
specific and authentic. PHOTO COURTESY HEALING.COM
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