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Rituals Help to Relieve Stress

Rituals Help to Relieve StressMany baseball players cross their chests before they step up to the plate, and basketball players will bounce the ball a certain number of times before they attempt a free throw. Non-athletes too often will perform exactly the same routine on daily tasks.

A new study suggests that such actions share a behavioral link with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in that they all act to reduce stress.

In a new study, researchers found that repetitive behavior in general — and especially ritualistic-like behavior — is not only a human phenomenon but also one in the animal world. Investigators believe the ritualistic behavior in both humans and animals evolved as a method to induce calm and relieve stress.

The action places some modicum of control back into the hands of the individual – a maneuver that helps to improve confidence and self-assurance in situations that would be otherwise out of our control.

The research is published in the journal of Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

Almost every human and animal activity can be divided into three parts — “preparatory,” “functional,” and “confirmatory,” said zoologist Dr. David Eilam.

The functional aspect is defined by the specific actions that must occur in order to complete a task.

But the preparatory and confirmatory actions, dubbed “head” and “tail” actions by the researchers, are not strictly required in order to get the job done. We complete them both before and after the central task, but they are not necessarily related to it.

Furthermore, individuals complete different head and tail activities for every task.

During the course of their study, Eilam and his fellow researchers watched and analyzed videotapes of people completing common tasks, such as putting on a shirt, locking a car, or making coffee, as well as basketball players completing a free-throw.

Elam says that basketball behavior is a good example of ritualistic behavior. All a player  actually has to do is to shoot the ball — so why bounce the ball precisely six times before the shot?

“The routine they perform in the moments before shooting the ball is a method to focus their full concentration and control their actions,” says Elam.

It’s also an essential part of sports psychology. If players feel that completing their repetitive actions will enhance their performance, they tend to be more successful, whether it is locker room antics or LeBron James’ pre-game chalk toss.

These idiosyncrasies are individual to each person, says Eilam, who notes that rituals are like fingerprints — unique to each individual.

Researchers say that even among daily functional tasks, head and tail activities can be easily differentiated. However, they are exaggerated in the OCD sufferer who might check and recheck whether the stove has been turned off, for example.

OCD patients were observed to engage in more “tail” activity than basketball players, who displayed more “head” activity, said Eilam.

The former suffer from a feeling of incompleteness — they are unsure whether or not their task has been completed, and compulsive behavior is driven by a need to verify the action.

Unlike a free throw, where there is a distinct cue — throwing the ball — that signals the end of the action, a common compulsive behavior, such as washing one’s hands, might not have as clear an ending. There is no external reference that signals “absolutely clean.”

According to Eilam, this is the key difference between normal and pathological rituals.

Source: Tel Aviv University

Rituals Help to Relieve Stress

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Rituals Help to Relieve Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 23 Sep 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.