How a Simple Ritual Can Make You Feel Better
Rituals can create meaning, help us connect, and ease our grief.
Posted Mar 19, 2013
As I set each foot on the floor, I give thanks and say a short prayer. I do some neck and shoulder and back stretches, then, I set an intention for the day and do a short visualization, imagining the feelings I want to experience as I go through the day. Then, I get moving.
This morning ritual can take five minutes, or less than one if my daughter is stirring (Read: Yelling until I come in) from the back bedroom, but I do them every morning. It is a way to give thanks for the day I have and to set the tone for the way I want to experience the moments to come.
It also makes me feel good, calm, and clear. And, according to research, those good feelings may come in part because of the sense of control the ritual provides in my life.
We humans tend to like this illusion that we can control outcomes or take charge in difficult situations and that might be one reason why rituals comfort us during times of stress, or grief and connect us during times of celebration. But, they can also help you become more aware and engaged in the every-day moments of life.
Why We Like Ritual
A ritual can be any set of actions and procedures, usually more than one and often repeated, that are performed in a meaningful or ceremonial way. I perform my morning, ritual, for example, in the same, quiet manner each day.
Though churches are known for their centuries-old rituals, families often have rituals in their own household, like sitting down together to dinner every night, or performing a set bedtime routine, or a particular way of celebrating birthdays and other occasions.
These actions and behaviors provide meaning, connection to others, and often a deeper understanding of ourselves. Rituals, like those that are part of graduation ceremonies, marriages, or funerals, provide an opportunity for emotional expression and even contemplation.
When it comes to grief and our experience of loss, research by Michael Norton and Francesca Gino, indicates that even a short ritual can diffuse our feelings of upset, anger and grief by providing a greater sense of control.
In one of the three experiments by Norton and Gino, participants were asked to perform a four-stage ritual after losing out on a $200 prize. Study participants drew their feelings about the loss, sprinkled salt on the drawing, tore up the drawing, and then counted to ten.
In another experiment, participants were asked to write about a loss they’d experienced when a relationship ended. After recalling that event, they were asked to write about a coping ritual they’d used after the loss. Those who recalled the ritual felt less grief than those who simply wrote about the end.
3 Ways Rituals Can Help and Add Meaning
Rituals, even in the middle of our days can help us shift our awareness and energy.
1. In the transitions of the day. If you want to set a mood, ignite energy, or move powerfully into the next activity a ritual can be a way to signal to your brain and body that you are ready to make the shift. Consider a morning ritual to set the tone for your day. Try a brief lunchtime ceremony to release morning stress and prepare for the work to come. A bedtime ritual that includes meditation, gratitude or contemplation can help you relax and disengage from the day.
In my family, to mark our family dinner, we go around the table and share a “goodness” as my six-year-old calls it. This is simply a gratitude exercise where everyone shares at least one thing they are grateful for. It’s a nightly ritual we developed to focus on the positives and connect to each other.
2. To let go. Rituals can be a powerful way to acknowledge and release the negative feelings around a personal setback, failure or disappointment and, as the study indicates above, it can also help to cope with the grief of a death or the loss of a relationship. If you feel like there are losses that you are hanging on to or not able to properly mourn, create a ritual.
Often, when I’ve been plagued by a worry or frustration, I’ve written it down on paper, considered all the reasons why I was upset or how it was holding me back, then I literally crumpled it up and thrown away that paper while saying, “I’m giving it up now.”
On occasion, I’ve even burned the paper. There is something about the ritual of seeing those negative feelings or happenings get crumpled up and thrown away that eases the stress of it.
3. To create meaning around what matters. Often, rituals around the things we care most about, ramp up our appreciation and add deeper meaning.
If you value nature, you may choose to create a tree-planting ritual, each year by performing a few mindful and significant steps that allow you to celebrate nature.
A friend of mine, smudges her work space with sage, says a short blessing, and dons a special “writing hat” before getting to work each day.
Whatever rituals you decide to create, just remember to include a few unique, significant and repeatable steps.
It can also help to have a special place to go to for specific rituals such as meditation, prayer, or even work. I write in the same space each day. I also have a set place for meditation and I begin each session the same way.
These steps help to remind me and my body that I am moving into a sacred moment and the ritual tethers me to the experience.