When something is backed by science and research, I can get on board no matter how woo-woo it seems. My science brain is skeptical of a lot of far-out claims. But, I also believe that we don’t yet understand much of the world.
After all, it wasn’t too long ago that the existence of germs was considered ridiculous! Yet pandemics and infections occurred long before humans invented the microscope, proving that germs like bacteria and viruses exist.
As a psychologist, I want to offer my clients help and treatment that is empirically supported. The five things below have seemed far-fetched in the recent past. In fact, they may still seem “woo-woo” to many people. But they’ve got enough scientific backing that I regularly recommend them, and use them myself. I’ve linked to research supporting them (there is much more out there!) and I briefly discuss each one below.
1. Gratitude Practice: Backed by Science and not Woo-Woo
When I first heard about practicing gratitude, it was from Oprah. I basically wrote it off as a self-help trend. But I was wrong. It turns out, practicing gratitude is powerful and transformative.
The research on the benefits of gratitude is robust. And for what it’s worth, my own gratitude practice has noticeably enhanced my life. This study indicated that engaging in a gratitude exercise decreased depressive symptoms and was overall good for participants’ well-being.
If you really want to deep dive into more “woo-woo” aspects of gratitude, an entire world of Law of Attraction resources awaits you. The idea is that putting your positive energy of gratitude into the universe attracts more of what you want.
The science behind this is based on the Reticular Activating System (RAS). This system is a diffuse network of nerve pathways in the brainstem, connecting the spinal cord, cerebrum, and cerebellum, and mediating the overall level of consciousness. It is responsible for our wakefulness, our ability to focus, our fight-flight response, and how we ultimately perceive the world.
Basically, the RAS notices what we tell it is important. Like that time I was thinking about buying a Subaru, and suddenly I started noticing Subarus everywhere! When you tell the RAS what you want, it listens, and notices the people, information and opportunities that will help you achieve your goals.
It may seem like magic, but making plans and taking action are part of Law of Attraction practices. It’s not only cultivating gratitude, although that is fundamental. In addition to feeling grateful for what you have, Law of Attraction practices involve taking steps towards what you want.
If you want to start a gratitude practice and you’re not sure what to do, try simply writing down five things every day that you are grateful for. Don’t expect transformation right away. But after a few weeks, you may notice that you have a more positive and appreciative state of mind.
The beneficial effects of meditation are so well documented that meditating shouldn’t be considered “woo-woo” anymore. But to many people, it still feels esoteric and “out there”. How could sitting in silence, letting your thoughts play out while you watch them, possibly do anything except drive you mad, right?
But the research is strong and plentiful. And time and time again, I see the transformative effects on my clients of even five or ten minutes a day of meditating. For people who are new to meditating, I regularly recommend starting with a free app like Calm or Headspace. Try five minutes a day, for two weeks, and see what happens. You don’t even need to believe in it, just commit to doing it consistently for a couple of weeks!
This review article outlines more benefits than you’d think are possible with meditation. Research has confirmed a staggering variety of health benefits associated with the practice of meditation. These include stress reduction, decreased anxiety, decreased depression, reduction in pain (both physical and psychological), improved memory, and increased efficiency. Physiological benefits include reduced blood pressure, heart rate, lactate, cortisol, and epinephrine, and increased melatonin and blood flow to the brain. With normal aging, the brain cortical thickness (gray matter) decreases, but those who meditate experience an increase in gray matter in the brain. Meditation also reduces cholesterol!
Basically, there is very little that provides as much return on investment as five to ten minutes a day of meditation.
3. Chanting: ancient practice, backed by modern science
There is probably a reason why most religions incorporate some kind of chanting into their rituals. It has powerful positive effects on the nervous system, decreasing stress and increasing feelings of well-being and connectedness.
Often combined with meditation and yoga, chanting changes the blood flow to your brain and stimulates the vagus nerve. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve.
Stimulating your vagus nerve send a message to your body that it’s time to relax. In turn, this helps improve mood, pain management, wellbeing and resilience. The positive effects of chanting on depression and general well-being are discussed in this article.
4. Affirmations: cognitive science says yes
The concept of affirmations isn’t particularly far-fetched. For me, the “woo-woo” aspect originated from Stuart Smalley’s legacy: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”
Positive affirmations are statements or phrases that, when repeated daily, help challenge negative thoughts and create healthier thought patterns. When used regularly, they create profound changes in the brain. This is because many parts of the brain aren’t good at differentiating between reality and imagination, and affirmations exploit this loophole. Once you create a mental image using affirmations, the same parts of the brain are activated as when you actually experience the goal in real life.
In turn, your brain begins to accept the affirmations as fact. This makes it feel more natural to take actions towards achieving your goal and acting “as if” your goal has already happened.
5. EFT: Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) aka “Tapping”: as good as gold
EFT combines elements of exposure and cognitive therapies with acupressure, providing a mind-body approach to healing anxiety, fears and trauma. During an EFT session, a client follows the therapist, who taps meridians on their own body and speaks aloud relevant sentences, such as, “Even though my anxiety feels overwhelming, I choose to feel safe and relaxed now.”
The research on EFT suggests that it is at least as effective as more traditional therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This is actually a powerful endorsement, because CBT is viewed as the gold standard for empirically-supported therapies.
The improvements people experience with EFT may be attributable to the characteristics it shares with existing therapies, per this study. However, the unique aspects of EFT often appeal to clients, such as engaging physical and verbal interventions simultaneously. In this study, EFT significantly reduced anxiety for adolescents.
Conclusion: Woo-woo but backed by science!
Are there woo-woo things that work, and we don’t have the science on them yet? I’m sure there are. (I checked for empirical support on crystals, for example, and I didn’t find any.) There is no reason to believe that we are at the height of our knowledge as humans being right now. So, there will likely be scientific support for other woo-woo interventions in the future. (There’s also the placebo effect, which deserves a whole other article devoted to it.)
In the meantime, I recommend incorporating any or all of the above five practices into your daily routine. See what happens and let me know!