When you hear the word “mantra,” you may picture someone sitting in lotus position on the top of a mountain at sunset, chanting “om” while the scent of incense wafts through the air. Thanks to that association, a lot of us don’t realize how helpful and effective using a mantra can be in our action-packed, potentially stressful daily lives.

Let’s back up a second — what is a mantra, exactly? Derived from Sanskrit, the word mantra means “mind tool” or “instrument of thought” and originally referred to a word or sound repeated during meditation to help you center and focus, but has expanded to include repeated phrases as well. Most traditional mantras aren’t in English — and many do not have an English translation, so in an article in the Buddhist publication Lion’s Roar, editor Sam Littlefair puts forth what he calls “modern mantras.” These are words or phrases in your native language that “you can call upon at any time to foster equanimity, compassion, insight, or whatever the moment calls for,” he writes. (We’ll get to some examples of those in a minute.)

Like with meditation, there is plenty of research to back up the power of a mantra on our bodies and minds.

According to one 2015 study, mantras can be effective even if people don’t regularly meditate [slowly raises hand]. The research found that when someone repeats a mantra, it causes a major shift in their brain activity — specifically in the part responsible for internal evaluation, rumination, and mind-wandering. When researchers compared results between participants in a resting state who used a mantra against those that didn’t, the ones utilizing the mantra reached a more advanced state of psychological calm. Who doesn’t want that?

So now that we know what mantras are and the science behind why they work, you probably want one of your own. By all means, take the time to come up with a word or phrase that’s meaningful for you and gets to the heart of how you’re feeling or what you’re seeking. But if nothing’s coming to mind right away, here are three suggestions to help get you started:

“Right now, it’s like this.”

This mantra comes down to gently reminding yourself to focus on the present, while simultaneously reassuring us that this moment will pass. Sure, right now you may be dealing with a stressful situation at work or child care situation at home, but like all things, these circumstances will change. Additionally, according to a meditation teacher included in the Lion’s Roar piece, this mantra can assist with self-forgiveness — after all, you’re saying “right now, it’s like this,” not “I’m like this.”

“I release any drama and replace it with peace.”

This mantra is great because you can actually visualize the drama exiting your body as you breathe out, and the peace entering as you inhale. It can apply to any type of conflict or uncomfortable situation at work, at home, or elsewhere in the world. As Tanaaz Chubb writes in the book My Pocket Mantras: Powerful Words to Connect, Comfort, and Protect, “It can be hard at times to disengage from the drama around you, but these words can help you do that. They will even allow you to see things from a higher perspective. When you view things from a higher perspective, solutions become more apparent and feelings of stress and anxiety are reduced.”

“I forgive myself for judging myself and thinking there was something wrong with me.”

It’s so easy to blame ourselves when something is going wrong in our lives, but this mantra allows you to forgive yourself and move on. It comes courtesy of meditation expert, author, and speaker Agapi Stassinopoulos. This mantra is particularly effective during times when you feel inadequate or that something is wrong with you. Stassinopoulos instructs us to pick a moment in our lives when we didn’t succeed in a way that we wanted to and told ourselves that there was something wrong with us — then to take that thought into our hearts and look at how incorrect that belief is. “Bring this memory in your consciousness and release it, erase it, forgive it,” she writes in her book, Wake Up to the Joy of You: 52 Meditations and Practices for a Calmer, Happier Life. “Do this as many times as you need to return to your natural joy.”

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  • Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.

    Bioethicist and writer

    Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer specializing in health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. Previously she was the health and sex editor at SheKnows. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for print and online publications including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneSalon and Playboy, and has given a TEDX talk on The Golden Girls and bioethics.