i tried it

Can Reciting a Daily Mantra Make You Treat Yourself Better?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

I Tried It is a micro-series where Cut writers test popular mindfulness practices to see if they improve their mental health and, even perhaps, their whole life.

I’ve never been great at being good to myself. My depressed, anxious brain is far more primed to ruminate on the most embarrassing things I’ve ever done or imagine all the embarrassing things I will inevitably do. I am less comfortable saying kind words in the mirror than I am letting out a little scream when I see a photo of myself I don’t like. But I’m working on it.

For the past three weeks, I’ve recited a mantra to myself every day. Usually, a mantra is a short phrase, sometimes a single word, that is part affirmation, part daily intention. Mine was entirely a combination of the first few Google results for “daily mantras.” I haven’t shared the mantra with anyone, including my husband, and I will not be sharing it with you, sorry. Sometimes it’s nice to have an innocuous secret with yourself.

Each morning, I stand in front of the mirror, look myself in the eyes, and say the words aloud. The first time I did it, I laughed. It felt awkward and uncomfortable, even though the only ones present were me and my dog. (To be fair, she is kind of judgmental.) At first, reciting my mantra felt more sarcastic than affirming, more like a well-intentioned lie than an honest reflection of who I feel I am. Though mantras began as a religious practice in Hinduism and Buddhism, what I was doing did not feel sacred. I felt silly looking at myself in the mirror saying something that might as well have been, “Love ya, babe!” It was foreign for me to say anything nice to myself at all.

Strange as it may initially feel, there are measurable benefits to reciting a daily mantra or undertaking similar meditative practices. Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, conducted one study that linked meditation to feeling less stressed. “The amygdala, the fight-or-flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear, and stress in general … got smaller in the [study participants] that went through the mindfulness-based stress-reduction program,” Dr. Lazar told the Washington Post.

In addition to overall stress reduction, these kinds of practices can help you be more gentle with yourself. A 2015 study on repetitive speech had participants silently repeat a word to themselves. The results showed significant reduction in activity in the “default mode network” of participants’ brains, which aids in self-criticism. Our brains are constantly creating new pathways influenced by the way the neurons in our brains communicate. Those pathways are strengthened when a behavior or thought is repeated. “The more [certain neurons] communicate, the stronger their connection becomes,” Dr. Alex Korb, a neuroscientist and writer, explained to The Wall Street Journal. Put simply, the things you repeat to yourself matter.

Have I seen life-changing results in a mere three weeks of reciting a daily mantra? No, but it’s been an easy, positive addition to my mornings, and it’s helped me start to question the negative way I instinctively speak to myself. It made me realize I’ve been reciting mantras to myself for most of my life, but they have rarely been words of encouragement or inspiration. My initial discomfort in reciting an affirming mantra seemed like evidence of the fact that this was not something my brain was used to. And now, what once felt foreign feels like a standard part of my day, like brushing my teeth or taking my meds. Speaking of which, it should be noted that my mantra was paired with a daily dose of antidepressants and SSRIs, starting to see my therapist again, and watching Love Island therapeutically. Still, adding a moment of mindfulness to my routine was calming. Giving myself a specific time and place to treat myself kindly has made these small compliments feel less strange, more deserved.

Can Reciting a Daily Mantra Make You Treat Yourself Better?