Healthy habits: Comforting rituals, traditions key to stress relief

MANSFIELD, Conn. — Weddings, graduation ceremonies, barbecues, and everything in between are being cancelled in mass quantities due to COVID-19. Ironically, a new study finds that we could all use events like these more than ever in the wake of the coronavirus. We’re all feeling extra stressed in 2020, and researchers from the University of Connecticut say that rituals, events, and traditions foster significant stress relief.

“In the current context of the pandemic, if you were a completely rational being — perhaps an extraterrestrial who’s never met any actual humans — you would expect that given the current situation people wouldn’t bother doing things that do not seem crucial to their survival. Maybe they wouldn’t care so much about art, sports, or ritual, and they would focus on other things,” says UConn Assistant Professor of Anthropology Dimitris Xygalatas in a release. “If you were to think that, it would show you didn’t know much about human nature, because humans care deeply about those things.”

Normally, rituals like weddings or even a July 4th party serve as a familiar source of comfort for people. Looking forward to and planning for such events help us cope with daily stressors and anxiety, and function as “mechanisms of resilience.” Unfortunately, the coronavirus is robbing us of such events and traditions this year, which partially explains why so many people feel so overrun with stress.

Xygalatas and his team have been studying this topic for quite some time. To start, they noted in a lab experiment that when one’s anxiety increases, they often fall back on repetitive, structured ritualized behavior. So, after observing this, the research team wanted to take their observations out of the lab and into the real world. Consequently, they observed as people performed familiar cultural rituals, and analyzed the effect these actions had on anxiety.

“This approach also goes to show the limitations of any study. One study can only tell us a tiny bit about anything, but by using a variety of methods like my team and I are doing, and by going between the highly controlled space of the lab and the culturally relevant place that is real life we are able to get a more holistic perspective,” he comments.

How rituals act as ‘important asset against excessive stress’

That experiment was conducted on Mauritius, an East African island nation. There, researchers told local participants to try and formulate a disaster response plan for an upcoming natural disaster that would be evaluated by a team of government experts. This scenario was specifically constructed to elicit anxiety among participants. After completing this task, half the participants went to their local temple and performed a familiar religious ritual. The other half were told to quietly sit in silence.

Pretty much all the participants were left feeling stressed out by the task they were asked to complete. But, those able to perform a religious ritual afterward displayed lower levels of stress than the other group. Both physiological and psychological stress were measured.

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“Stress acts as a motivation that helps us focus on our goals and rise to meet our challenges, whether those involve studying for an exam, flying a fighter jet, or scoring that game-winning goal. The problem is that beyond a certain threshold, stress ceases to be useful. In fact, it can even be dangerous. Over time, its effects can add up and take a toll on your health, impairing cognitive function, weakening the immune system, and leading to hypertension or cardiovascular disease. This type of stress can be devastating to our normal functioning, health, and well-being,” Xygalatas explains.

This is where, according to the researchers, rituals come into play as an important asset against excessive stress. “The mechanism that we think is operating here is that ritual helps reduce anxiety by providing the brain with a sense of structure, regularity, and predictability,” Xygalatas adds.

True life hacks

Over the past few decades, modern science has begun to better understand that the human brain is essentially never at rest. It is constantly active and making predictions about the world around us. Rituals and traditions offer a rest for the brain because they are known events that provide structure.

“We come to expect certain things — our brain fills in the missing information for the blind spot in our vision, and prompts us to anticipate the next word in a sentence — all of these things are due to this effect because our brain makes active predictions about the state of the world,” Xygalatas says.

“One thing I like to tell my students is that we as human beings are not as smart as we’d like to think. But thankfully, we are at least smart enough to be able to outsmart ourselves. We have many ways of doing this; for instance, when we look at ourselves in the mirror before an interview and tell ourselves, ‘OK, I can do this.’ Or when we take deep breaths to calm down. We have all of these hacks that we can use on our very brain,” he concludes. “We could rationalize it and tell ourselves ‘OK, I’m going to lower my heartbeat now.’ Well, that doesn’t work. Ritual is one of those mental technologies that we can use to trick ourselves into doing that. That is what these rituals do — they act like life hacks for us.”

The study is published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

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