Why rituals are important, even in uncertain times

In response to the pandemic of coronavirus, many American universities have suspended all campus events. Students in the U.S. have experienced a dramatic change, just like millions of other people around the globe.

I asked my students if they had any questions when I met them for our final in-class meeting. My students’ first question was, “Will there be a graduation?”

They were disappointed to hear that they had been wrong.

It was not surprising to me that so many students asked this question. As an anthropologist, I study ritual. From weddings and birthdays to graduations at college and holidays, the ceremony is a part of the most important events in our lives.

Rituals give meaning to experiences and make them memorable.

Rituals as a way to cope with anxiety

Anthropologists have observed for a long time that people of all cultures tend to perform a greater number of rituals during uncertain timesSpikes of ritual activity are commonly associated with stressful events like warfare, environmental threats and material insecurity.

My colleagues and I conducted a lab study in 2015. We found that people tend to behave more rigidly and repetitively under stress – or in a more ritualized.

This tendency is a result of our cognitive makeup. Our brains are wired for making predictions regarding the current state of the universe. It uses previous knowledge to make sense out of current circumstances. When everything changes, our ability to predict is limited. This makes many feel anxious.

This is where the ritual comes into play.

Rituals are highly organized. Ceremonies require rigidity and must be performed in the “right” manner. They need repetition: the same actions must be repeated over and over. They are also predictable.

Even if rituals have no direct effect on the physical world, they can still provide a feeling of control by imposing order on the chaos of daily life.

What matters is that this feeling of control is real. This method must be effective in relieving anxiety.

Two studies that will be published soon have found this. We discovered that Hindus in Mauritius experienced less anxiety after performing temple rituals. Heart rate monitors measured this. In the U.S., we found that Jewish college students who participated in more group rituals showed lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Rituals provide connection

Collective rituals require coordination. People may wear the same clothes, move together in sync, or sing in harmony when they perform a ceremony as a group. By acting together, feel like one.

People build trust when they come together to perform a ritual. Neal Schneider? FlickrCC BY-NC-ND

My colleagues and I have found that coordinated movements increase trust between people and even release neurotransmitters linked to bonding.

Rituals create a sense that people belong to a community by aligning their behavior and sharing experiences. Participating in collective practices can increase generosity and even make people’s heart rate synchronize.

Tools for resilience

People around the globe are creating new rituals to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

Some of these rituals can help you regain control and feel more organized. Jimmy Kimmel’s wife and he encouraged people in quarantine, for example, to dress up on Fridays, even if it was just them.

Other people have come up with new ways to celebrate age-old traditions. The New York City Marriage Bureau was closed due to pandemic. A Manhattan couple then decided to marry in the fourth-floor windows of a friend who is ordained.

Some rituals are meant to celebrate new beginnings, while others provide closure. Families of coronavirus patients are having virtual burials to avoid spreading the virus. In some cases, pastors have administered the last rites by phone.

People have developed a variety of rituals in order to keep a sense of connection with others. In several European cities, residents have begun to thank healthcare workers at the same hour every day.

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