Religious or spiritual rituals seem quaint to some and pointless to others. Meaningful or meaningless may depend on the traditions you grew up with and which ones you’ve embraced or eschewed as an adult. You may find them charming, alarming, deeply moving or covertly dangerous, but one word you’ve probably never used to describe a symbolic ritual is rational—until now.
Whether it’s lighting a candle at church, smudging your home with burning herbs or taking a deep breath when you feel anxious, personal rituals actually do work to decrease anxiety and increase confidence. Right now some readers are saying to themselves, “Sure, I already knew that.” They know from personal experience these sorts of habits have a positive impact on their day-to-day life. But many others are dismissing the idea, thinking “Oh, it’s all in your head.” Well science has a little something to say to the doubters: You’re right, it is all in the head, and that’s why it works.
A study about sport’s performance published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that pre-performance “lucky rituals” actually enhanced a participant’s confidence, motivation, focus and performance. Likewise, reports from the Journal of Experimental Psychology show that rituals to alleviate grief actually did help mourners move through the acute stages of loss faster and with more ease than their non-ritualistic counterparts. How can this be so? Participating in familiar or trusted rituals triggers the relaxation response—think of it as the opposite of “fight or flight.” Instead of making you as jumpy as a lame gazelle in a pack of lions, the relaxation response helps you to calm down, focus and feel more positive about things.
Some who participate in group or personal rituals credit angels, spirit guides, magic or a heavenly being for their success. Conversely, it’s exactly those ideas that prompt others to shake their heads and utter nonsense. The good news is, rituals work whether you believe in supernatural powers or not! Hey, if you’ve got angels on your side, more power to you, but our friend Science says these types of religious and spiritual customs have a direct effect on brain chemistry—no faith required.
Far from being outdated, rituals have an important place in our modern lives. You don’t have to light a room full of candles and summon the four winds to reap the benefits of personal ritual (but please invite me if you do). All that’s necessary is a desire to feel or do better, a deep breath and maybe a pair of lucky socks.