Stress can mess up the best version of ourselves. There’s no way around it – it’s rooted in our psychology. Consider, for instance, what happens to the brain in positive versus negative emotional states.
In states of emotional positivity, our brain and mental state is open. In these moments, we’re far more likely to find opportunities, enhance our creativity, recognize the patterns around us, and add new experiences. We build. We grow.
But it’s the exact opposite in times of emotional negativity. We get closed us off to new experiences and new sensations, with greater reluctance to explore any form of novelty. The blinders go up. The windows get shut. All the brain cares about in times of anxiety is the anxiety itself.
Yes, true, it’s an evolved response that allowed our species to survive.
But surviving and thriving are two very different outcomes. An anxious brain merely survives. It does not thrive. And since evolution is so obsessed with survival, it plays tricks on our brain. It convinces us that things are far worse than they actually are. It creates feedback cycles that force us into negative thinking patterns.
The unconscious monkey mind ensues and tells us to “look out!” and to be extra vigilant in the event that we come across something bad. Something dangerous. Back in the cavewoman days it was sabre-toothed tigers. And though we no longer have to worry about these prehistoric beasts, our brain thinks we still do.
To the anxious brain, everything looks like a sabre-toothed tiger.
What we need, then, is a way to pull ourselves (and our brain) out of the anxiety-negativity trap. Luckily for us, there’s one set of behaviors and practices that are as ancient as the earliest humans. They’ve protected us from the onslaught of anxiety and negativity since time immemorial. What are they?
The new science of ritual
Rituals are a natural anxiety buster. Makes sense. We’ve long known about their powerful anxiolytic properties. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that most religious prayer-based behaviors are intensely ritualistic. In fact, early proto-rituals preceded all forms of religious belief. When I say they’re old, I mean they are seriously ancient.
Now, you may be thinking that this is obvious. Of course rituals have help to relieve anxiety. And on the surface, it is indeed obvious. But if we go deeper, we begin to see why and how it is that rituals (religious or otherwise) help alleviate stress and anxiety. The new science of ritual is shedding light on these whys and hows.
My research over the past decade has helped understand why rituals in particular (and not any other behaviors like habits, for instance) are effective at battling negative emotions. Be it anxiety, stress, fear, doubt, sadness, grief – you name it. Rituals are there to save the day. The dread we feel after experiencing a loss happens because it feels like the situation is outside our control (and it usually is). Rituals reinstate that control.
Consider, for instance, in moments of grief, rituals help ease our pain and suffering. But, again I ask, how do they do this, and why rituals in particular? As my collaborators Mike Norton and Francesca Gino have shown, rituals alleviate feeling of grief and loss by increasing a feelings of control.
In a nifty experiment, they gave the exact same set of actions to two groups. Half of people were told the actions were “ritual” while the other half were told the actions were “random behaviors.” The people led to believe the action were ritual experienced greater control and reduced grief. Even the word ‘ritual’ itself carries immense benefits.
Adding to these findings, in my work I suggest that the salutary effects of ritual happen because of two reasons. It’s because of what rituals are. They are:
i) ceremonious, deeply meaningful acts that are shared between people and embedded in a system of historical/cultural significance, but also
ii) arbitrarily structured, highly repetitive set of action sequences that follow a rigid script.
The first is what we scientists call “top-down” mechanisms of ritual; the second the “bottom-up” mechanisms. It’s this unique combination of psychological forces, the bottom-up meeting the top-down, where rituals gain their unique ability to combat stress and anxiety.
“Top-down” meaning and symbolism
When you do a ritual, you aren’t simply moving your body around following a set of mundane sequences (though it may look like that on the surface). But you’re also symbolically interacting with ancestors, or tapping into an invisible force that is much, much greater than yourself. Setting a special intention this way serves to buffer against negative emotions.
The history of rituals is a remarkable thing. Consider how old many of our current-day traditions are – hundreds, even thousands of years old. No other behaviors stand the test of time like rituals do. As artifacts of human behavior, they’re cognitively capturing, sticky, and easily shared between people. Even infants are born with the ability to detect and imitate rituals. We’re born ready to ritualize our life.
Bottom up structure and order
But there’s another element to ritual beyond the historical and cultural significance. Even novel, ad-hoc rituals can carry tremendous psychological and biological benefits. Our research has shown that the simplest ritualized actions provide a sense of order to our world. The logic is simple: with more order in ritual actions, the more order in our world. It explains, for example, why so many rituals contain elements of repetition and sequential ordering.
The world is a chaotic place. Things happen outside our control all the time. But with ritual, we are in control; we have the say of what is done, and when.
Find meaning and structure in ritual
Rituals are a powerful tool for dealing with stress and anxiety. They are an intimate part of our life and well-being.
And it’s true, rituals aren’t there to help us survive. Rather, they are there to help us thrive. They are there to allow us to be the best version of ourselves. Unlike any other behavior, they give us both meaning (i.e., top-down) and structure (i.e., bottom-up). You can’t get this in such potency from anything else.
With this in mind, I give you the same challenge I give all my university students: Try and see the rituals around you in this way. For those rituals you do engage in, can you pinpoint the two psychological mechanisms mentioned above? How are they built in? That’s your homework for the day. And I bet you’ll soon realize it’s through a scientific lens that we can begin to understand the how and why of ritual.
That we can begin to appreciate the real power of these wonderfully ancient behaviors.
Nick is a behavioral and brain scientist whose research on rituals and emotional well-being helps people improve their peak psychological functioning. Come say hello to him here, and get the newest action-packed insights from leading science research.