What do you think of when you hear the word ‘RITUAL?”
Your morning routine, church, baseball, Thanksgiving, and Christmas?
What if I told you that holidays are nothing but a collective performance of rituals? Yes, even if you don’t celebrate the classic version of the rituals, you’ll have created your own. No ham and sweet potatoes for you? I bet there’s something else you eat instead, even if in protest. Every year😊
Rituals have been a part of human existence for as long as we have had evidence of human existence. We are wonderfully ritualistic creatures. But why are they so important to us? And more importantly, do they actually work?
We all know that athletes perform rituals before competing. It could be hand gestures, affirmations, music, exercises, lucky outfits, lucky underpants (hey!), charms, totems, jewelry, or even people they want in the audience.
My daughter used to have a ritual before her gymnastics competitions. She would watch Oprah’s interview with Will Smith on a loop [LINK HERE] while I would do her hair. And it worked with her anxiety every time.
This is an excellent time to think of your rituals. Let’s start by clarifying what constitutes a ritual.
/ˈrɪtʃ·u·əl/ a set of actions or words performed in a regular way, often as part of a religious ceremony. A ritual is also any act done regularly, usually without thinking about it.
Think of a ritual from your life. As you keep reading, see if this makes sense.
Now that we’ve gotten a definition and an example let’s dive in.
Clearly, rituals are repetitive in nature. We know from kids that a specific repetitive routine helps them stay safe and calm, i.e., helps regulate their nervous systems.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that a ritual has a calming effect on our minds and bodies. Studies also show that rituals lower our blood pressure and improve focus and the ability to stay with a task longer.
When we are in survival mode – stressed out, anxious, or experiencing intense emotions such as anger, frustration, or helplessness, the sympathetic nervous system (the system that’s in charge of the stress response by controlling the heart rate, body temperature, hormones, etc) takes charge of the physiology of the body. When that happens, all other tasks are considered a waste of energy and time.
There are times when the sympathetic nervous system’s response saves a life. Then, there are instances when it hinders our optimal performance. For example, when you’re about to speak in front of 50 people, or you’re an athlete ready to compete.
Studies show that athletes have a neural connection that relates to performance anxiety and fear of failure. It activates when a possibility of failing is present. Here’s the good news!
Activation of this neural connection can be turned down with a ritual. In simpler words, a ritual tones down performance anxiety, fear, and stress. A calmer body will always get better results.
Ok, enough of the athletes. Let’s talk about the rest of us. Do our rituals have the same effect on us? Your hot beverage of preference, favorite undies, or a New Year celebration – do the rituals we perform once a year or once a day help us?
It turns out that yes. Not only do rituals help us, but they are almost mandatory to navigate stressful everyday situations.
Rituals ask us to engage our pre-frontal cortex to organize, concentrate, recall, and focus on the task. It’s a break from emotions. When we engage the front part of our brains, we calm the primal response center of fight or flight – the amygdala.
This process allows us to calm the body and nervous system and move the focus away from anxiety and grief. It’s as if rituals create a safe house for our emotions and experiences.
Thus, keep doing yours, add them as needed, and have a kind attitude towards others’ rituals, as they make this world a lighter place.