Years ago, Cindy Lamothe’s older brother died unexpectedly. To cope with the overwhelming grief, she turned to mantras for comfort.
“At his memorial, a family member read, ‘For everything, there is a season,’ and I repeated that phrase to myself before falling asleep at night and whenever I was flooded with heartbreak,” she said.
During times of emotional toil and political unrest, mantras, poetry and song lyrics have the profound ability to soothe feelings of sadness, anger and grief, which can aid in the healing process.
“Reciting those words reminded me how nothing, not even ravaging pain, lasts forever,” Lamothe said.
Relying on mantras for support may seem like an artificial form of “self-help.” But it’s grounded in science, according to psychotherapists.
Known as “expressive arts therapy” or “bibliotherapy,” these techniques can help us express and understand difficult emotions, especially when talking about them conjures up grief.
What psychotherapists have found is that reading about another person’s trauma, loss, and sadness can validate our pain. Even though soothing words can’t unspool suffering, they can help us feel less alone, which can dismantle the shame that often travels with trauma and mental health concerns.
“Mantras helped me through the darkness of my divorce,” said Andrea Scher, an artist and life coach in Berkeley, California.
Repeating the phrase, “You can want what you want,” helped Scher feel empowered, which made it easier to set healthy boundaries in her life.
Whether it’s poetry, song lyrics or a quote from your favorite author, words have the power to heal. The key is to identify sayings that speak to your particular circumstance.
“I always choose affirmations that resonate with me deeply,” Scher said.
Inspired by the therapeutic value of mantras, Scher created an online class, Morning Mantras. In her course, she shares mantras with her students in hopes of sparking courage, compassion and joy.
She said mantras are one way to challenge the little voice in our heads that tell us we aren’t good enough, or that we’re unworthy of happiness.
Cognitive-behavioral therapists call these self-limiting beliefs “thought traps,” which are unhelpful thinking patterns that stir up negative emotions and perpetuate unhealthy behaviors.
For instance, believing we’re unworthy of happiness may cause us to forgo interactions that cultivate joy, such as confiding in a close friend or seeking therapy to talk about problems.
Reciting mantras puts “thought traps” to the test by challenging negative beliefs, which can turn self-criticism into self-compassion. And similar to journaling, writing down mantras is a self-care activity you can easily incorporate into a busy schedule.
But to strengthen our emotional muscles, we need to put this exercise into regular practice.
Ready to begin? As a psychologist, I’ve shared a brief guide to help you get started.
1. Name your struggle
Identify what you’re struggling with. Maybe you want to be less perfectionistic, less distracted or less anxious. Embrace your goal and write it down. When doing so, use an “I” statement, but instead of naming your flaw, focus on the positive.
For example, instead of saying, “I will be less distracted,” try something like, “I will be more present in my daily life.” Similarly, instead of saying, “I will let go of perfectionism,” say, “I will be gentle with myself.”
Positive intentions distill negative self-talk, which can motivate us to change.
2. Identify a mantra
After naming your goal, find a mantra that reflects what you’d like to achieve, or a phrase that inspires bravery, sparks joy or fosters self-discipline.
Mantras can be found in literature, song lyrics or poetry. As you choose your mantra, pay attention to how it makes you feel. Like good advice, meaningful mantras speak to us and are messages we can benefit from.
3. Write it down
Instead of using a laptop or smartphone to record your mantra, write it down on paper. Why? Because when it comes to learning and memory, studies show writing with a pen helps us retain information more effectively.
In addition, handwritten notes help anchor us in the present. When we’re disconnected from our devices, we’re not distracted by Facebook or Instagram. Spending a quiet moment writing down goals and mantras is one way to honor being with our thoughts.
4. Put it into practice
After you’ve written down your goal and mantra, put it into practice. Similar to an exercise program, commit to reciting your mantra once a day. You may repeat the phrase as you meditate or before you get out of bed in the morning. It’s also helpful to recite the mantra when difficult emotions arise.
If you want to take your practice a step further, use your mantra to garner further insight about yourself. Why did you choose the mantra? What does it say about your struggle?
In the end, unearthing the reasons for our struggles can offer a more profound understanding, which can help set us free from whatever ails us.
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and a health writer who lives in San Francisco. Her stories have appeared in the New York Times, NPR and The Washington Post.