Whether we know it or not, we all rely on rituals of varying kinds to help us cope
By Wendy Haaf
Bruce Feiler didn’t set out to write about how rituals can help people deal with major life transitions. The Brooklyn, NY, author of the best-selling Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age (Penguin Press, 2020) simply wanted to ask Americans in all 50 states to share stories about their lives.
“I got very interested in how, in times of difficulty, people have to rethink and rewrite the stories they tell themselves,” he says. Once Feiler had finished gathering material, he says, “I spent a year with a team of 12 people, coding these stories, trying to tease out themes and patterns that could help us all in times of change.”
On average, interviewees reported experiencing a life transition every 12 to 18 months, three to five of which were major life upheavals—such as a medical crisis—that Feiler terms “life-quakes.” He also found that 80 per cent of respondents used ritual to help them navigate the roiling emotions—fear, sadness, shame—such milestones bring with them. For example, after coming out as gay, leaving a long-standing marriage, and moving to a different area, one retiree drew a line under his old life in the following way: “He went to a sweat lodge to sort of expunge this loveless marriage he’d been in,” Feiler explains.
Grounding and Structure
While we may not often recognize them as such, our lives are filled with rituals both major and minor. “So much of this stuff is invisible to most people,” says Andrew Sofin, a Montreal psychotherapist and the president of the Canadian Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. From sitting down to that first coffee of the day or walking the dog after dinner, to throwing an anniversary celebration or attending a funeral, we instinctively use rituals in a variety of ways—and for good reason. “There’s tons of research showing the power of ritual and how it supports mental health,” Sofin says, “for individuals, families, and extended communities.” (Ritual can also have a dark side: see Ritual Run Amok, below.)
One of the broad ways it does so is to “help people regulate emotions,” says Melanie Badali, a registered psychologist at the North Shore Stress & Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver.
Take something as simple as a daily commute or a morning shower. “Daily rituals and routines help keep us grounded,” Sofin explains, “because when we’re doing them, we’re in the moment. And we know that’s good for our mental health, rather than [worrying by] going 1,000 miles into the past or the future.” Worrying about the future and ruminating over past stresses increase the risk of developing depression and anxiety.
Going through the motions of an act we’ve performed hundreds of times also offers a sense of familiarity. For instance, after a long period of not attending Mass, Erin Kinsella found herself doing so daily via television after COVID-19 struck. “It was a ritual when I was growing up, so there was some comfort in that, some kind of grounding and stability,” says Kinsella, who is the director of campus ministry at the Newman Centre Catholic Mission in Toronto.
In fact, the pandemic’s upending of routines has likely exacerbated the stress of living with the accompanying uncertainty. According to Sofin, some of his clients haven’t recognized that this is an underlying source of their distress, instead directing the blame to one of the people closest to them.
Such long-practised actions do something else, too. “Ritual engages a different part of our brain, one that is more tied to habit,” Kinsella says. “For example, I don’t have to work up the willpower to brush my teeth, because I don’t actually have to think about it—it doesn’t require cognitive processing. Because what’s happening is so familiar, we don’t have to process our environment plus our emotions. That can allow us the freedom to really feel what we’re feeling, experience what’s happening in our bodies, and process our emotions and experiences,” she says.
In the case of a seismic life change, such as the death of a loved one, funerals and memorial services “provide us with a familiar vehicle in terms of trying to understand how to behave,” says Stephen Fleming, a psychotherapist with FVB Psychologists in Mississauga, ON, who specializes in helping people who’ve suffered a traumatic loss, such as the death of a child. In a time of chaos and disorder, “rituals make the unfamiliar familiar,” he says. “They create structure where there is none,” Feiler explains. This structure also gives others a framework for how to behave. By contrast, in situations that lack a traditional or official ritual of some kind, such as stillbirth and miscarriage, the loss is rendered invisible, and thus, even harder to bear.
In the case of a traumatic loss, rituals help us “acknowledge the reality of the death,” Fleming says. In his experience, such an acknowledgement helps people move through grief by beginning the process of internalizing the relationship they had with the deceased person. A relationship doesn’t end when one party dies, it just changes, Fleming says, as we take stock of the lessons we’ve learned from knowing and loving that person and how that has changed us. “In that process, they continue to live,” he says.
“There are also rituals for helping someone whose mind may be overwhelmed by grief, sadness, or guilt,” Sofin says. For example, there are, he says, religious occasions for “seeking forgiveness, such as the Catholic sacrament of confession and the Jewish Day of Atonement.”
Collective rituals such as weddings, funerals, and anniversary parties also serve as “statements to others that we’re going through this together,” Feiler says. “They are occasions to gather to tell stories and get emotions out and onto the table.”
“They give permission to express emotion,” Fleming says. “And on a social and familial level, I think ritual can solidify relationships,” Fleming adds. This can help protect mental health, since high-quality relationships are linked with a lower likelihood of problems such as loneliness, anxiety, and depression. By connecting us with others, collective rituals imbue us with a sense of belonging, as well.
Finally, taking part in a long-established communal ceremony or custom, religious or not, “gives you a sense of meaning,” Feiler says.
According to Fleming, rituals can also help with healing after an especially jolting loss, such as the death of a loved one due to an accident or violence, once the mental haze begins to lift. “If you’re in a state of shock, it’s not going to happen,” he explains. “There has to be appropriate emotional distancing.”
In such cases, Fleming encourages people to create their own personalized ritual to honour the memory of the deceased, using “their own creativity to establish their own meaning, rather than a packaged ritual.” One mother with whom he worked decided to cash in her daughter’s life insurance policy and use the proceeds to cover funeral expenses for families in need. Another couple now celebrates their daughter’s birthday every year at a party featuring ice sculptures and the release of butterflies. “Sometimes there’s a metamorphosis from the first year to the second to the third, until it gets to the point that we’re very satisfied,” Fleming says.
Of course, not all rituals are collective. There are those that are personal, such as getting a tattoo in memory of a loved one. “Another is a name change—adding or subtracting a married name, or adopting a religious name, is surprisingly common,” Feiler says.
Today, we may have more of a need than ever to design and establish rituals for ourselves. For one thing, religion no longer plays as prominent a role in our society as it once did. And of course, we’re currently all dealing with the stress, uncertainty, and unpredictability of living through a pandemic.
“What I think is so important now is for people to stop and reflect on what rituals they have in their lives,” Sofin says. “What rituals do you engage in that give you good mental health? Or poor mental health? Start with your personal rituals and go outwards. One might think: What are the rituals of my closest relationships, my extended family, my culture, my country? One thing my colleagues and I have been trying to stress in therapy is how we can build new rituals.”
Creating or organizing a ritual that holds meaning for us personally “is kind of a statement to yourself—it reassures you,” Feiler says. Because such an action is voluntary, “it gives you some sense of agency—that you’re taking some control” in a situation where that is largely lacking.
One person who has been using an exercise of her own devising to cope during these trying times is Anne Rosenberg, a Vancouver social worker, freelance broadcast journalist, and “Guided Autobiography” (GAB) instructor. “My ritual is that I look for joy and try to catch it, almost like using an imaginary butterfly net,” she says. “I keep my eyes focused on finding beauty in whatever shape or form I can. When I practise that, change is easier on my physical, emotional, and spiritual state.” And heaven knows we could all use something that has that effect right about now.
Ritual Run Amok
While rituals can have many positive effects, sometimes they’re less than benign. Take smoking, for instance, or regularly spending hours drinking with friends. There are also disorders in which ritual runs amok, wreaking destruction on mental health, one example being obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
In OCD, “unwanted or disturbing thoughts, images, or urges intrude into a person’s mind and cause a great deal of anxiety and discomfort,” explains Melanie Badali, a registered psychologist at the North Shore Stress & Anxiety Clinic in North Vancouver. To try to ease this intensive discomfort, someone with OCD “engages in repetitive behaviours or mental acts—compulsions,” she says, which are commonly performed “in a ritualistic or specific way.”
Here’s what happens in OCD: In response to a disturbing thought, say, that someone you love is going to be involved in a car crash and die, you might “say a little prayer or touch wood,” Badali says, which relieves your distress in the short term. So when the feared event doesn’t occur, “this can get connected with those actions,” Badali explains. This loop can stop us from realizing that thoughts aren’t facts.
Substance-use issues, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders unfold in a similar way. “The solution can become the problem,” Badali says. “The thing—behaviour, thought, substance, or item—that helps you cope with an uncomfortable emotion can also interfere with your learning that the feeling can pass or change without that thing.” If the ritual in question is something quick and simple such as “making the sign of the cross or saying a little prayer before you get on an airplane,” Badali says, and it stops there, there’s no problem. However, “if you get caught up in thinking that the plane will crash if you don’t say a prayer perfectly 100 times in a row, it’s going to cause you distress and interfere with your life if that’s something you feel compelled to do often,” she says.
You can learn more about anxiety disorders and find resources such as a free scientifically based treatment tool and a self-management guide at anxietycanada.com.