In a new study, researchers from the University of Connecticut looked at how rituals such as weddings, birthday parties, annual parades and the like may play a role in reducing our anxiety levels. The mechanism behind this may be that rituals provide the brain with a sense of structure, regularity and predictability.

The findings, published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, have important implications as many gatherings have been called off due to COVID-19.

“In the current context of the pandemic, if you were a completely rational being — perhaps an extraterrestrial who’s never met any actual humans — you would expect that given the current situation people wouldn’t bother doing things that do not seem crucial to their survival,” said UConn Assistant Professor of Anthropology Dimitris Xygalatas.

“Maybe they wouldn’t care so much about art, sports, or ritual, and they would focus on other things. If you were to think that, it would show you didn’t know much about human nature, because humans care deeply about those things.”

Further, Xygalatas said, rituals play an important role in people’s lives, helping them cope with anxiety and functioning as mechanisms of resilience.

Xygalatas conducted the study with collaborators from Masaryk University, Czech Republic, including former UConn student Martin Lang, Ph.D.

This research started years ago, Xygalatas said. He said to study something as complex as human behavior, it’s important to approach the question from several angles to collect converging evidence.

First, in a laboratory experiment, the team found that inducing anxiety made people’s behavior more ritualized, that is, more repetitive and structured. So the next step was to take this study out to real-life situations, where they looked at whether performing cultural rituals in their natural context indeed helps practitioners cope with anxiety.

“This approach also goes to show the limitations of any study. One study can only tell us a tiny bit about anything, but by using a variety of methods like my team and I are doing, and by going between the highly controlled space of the lab and the culturally relevant place that is real life we are able to get a more holistic perspective.”

The study took place in Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, where the researchers induced anxiety by asking participants to prepare a plan for dealing with a natural disaster that would be evaluated by government experts.

This was stressful, as floods and cyclones are very pertinent threats in that context. Following this stress-inducing task, one half of the group performed a familiar religious ritual at the local temple while the other half were asked to sit and relax in a non-religious space.

The team found that the speech was successful in inducing stress for both groups but those who performed the religious ritual experienced less psychological and physiological stress, which was assessed by using wearable technology to measure heart rate variability.

Stress itself is important, said Xygalatas.

“Stress acts as a motivation that helps us focus on our goals and rise to meet our challenges, whether those involve studying for an exam, flying a fighter jet, or scoring that game-winning goal,” he said.

“The problem is that beyond a certain threshold, stress ceases to be useful. In fact, it can even be dangerous. Over time, its effects can add up and take a toll on your health, impairing cognitive function, weakening the immune system, and leading to hypertension or cardiovascular disease. This type of stress can be devastating to our normal functioning, health, and well-being.”

This is where Xygalatas and his team believe ritual plays an important role in managing stress.

“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.”

Xygalatas said research now suggests that the brain is not a passive computer but an active predictive machine, registering information and making predictions to help us survive.

“We come to expect certain things — our brain fills in the missing information for the blind spot in our vision, and prompts us to anticipate the next word in a sentence — all of these things are due to this effect because our brain makes active predictions about the state of the world.”

Well-practiced rituals, like the one in the study, are repetitive and predictable, and the researchers believe they give our brains the sense of control and structure that we crave, and those feelings help alleviate stress. This stress-reducing effect of rituals could be a way to cope with chronic anxiety.

In today’s stressful context, we see ritual taking different forms, from people gathering to applaud health care workers, to virtual choirs singing across the internet. Xygalatas also noted a recent study that tracked the increase in people typing “prayer” in Google searches. In this unpredictable time, people are continuing to find relief in ritual.

Source: University of Connecticut