When It Comes To Dealing With Stress & Anxiety, Ritual Is Key

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Woman Sitting Peacefully Outdoors

Image by Micky Weswedel / Stocksy

Everyone has their own way of coping with stress and anxiety. But according to new research, there is one tool that the vast majority of people seem to benefit from. In a study by the University of Connecticut and Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, rituals were found to play a key role in calming anxiety across the board.

Studying the effects of rituals.

In previous research, assistant professor of anthropology at U.Conn., Dimitris Xygalatas, Ph.D., found that anxiety made people's behavior more ritualized and structured. To take these findings further, his team studied whether performing rituals did anything to affect participants' anxiety in turn.

First, they asked subjects to come up with a natural disaster plan, which induced feelings of anxiety and unease. Then, half the group participated in a religious ritual at a temple while the other half was instructed to sit and relax.

Both groups definitely felt the stress of coming up with a disaster plan—but those who took part in the ritual were able to "shake it off" better, so to speak. After measuring heart rate, researchers concluded that the first group had a greater reduction in stress than the group who hadn't performed any rituals.

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What this research says about how to use rituals to your advantage.

While a little stress here and there is fine, too much of it for too long can take a real toll on one's health. "Beyond a certain threshold, stress ceases to be useful," Xygalatas says in a research report, adding that it can impair cognitive function, weaken the immune system, and lead to hypertension.

As for what makes rituals effective at easing stress before it becomes harmful, Xygalatas says, "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."

In other words, if you're doing an activity you're familiar and comfortable with, it sends a signal to the brain that you are safe.

This research is all the more reason to ramp up your ritual practice, especially during hard times. Participating in a religious ritual or taking the more spiritual route with a familiar yoga flow, tarot pull, energy cleansing, visualization, or journaling exercise could be just what the body and mind need to release all that built-up stress and uncertainty.

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