Intelligent self-care

How to Design 3 Personal Rituals for Grounding, Letting Go and Recalibrating

How to use the science of rituals to help you manage your emotions

Marta Brzosko
Dec 23, 2019 · 16 min read
Photo by Emily Bauman on Unsplash

Performing rituals is inherently human behavior. We all do it. However, there’s a big difference between people who do it unconsciously and those who are intentional about their rituals.

The purpose of this article is to invite you to the latter group. This way, you’ll be able to take full advantage of the power of ritual and use it to enhance your everyday well-being.

A few years ago, I used to have many rituals I wasn’t proud of. Watching YouTube before bed, smoking a cigarette with my morning coffee, or having a drink on Friday afternoon — all these behaviors bore traits of a ritual. However, they weren’t necessarily beneficial.

Later, when I started meditating and paying more attention to my overall health, I realized I could deliberately design my rituals. This way, they served deeper purposes than just temporary distraction from emotional discomfort. I discovered that personal rituals could nurture my long-term objectives, while also helping me deal with difficult emotions.

Over the last few years, I developed the following rituals to support me through the most recurring emotional challenges:

1. Grounding ritual, to deal with anxiety and self-doubt.

2. Letting go ritual, to deal with attachment and repulsion.

3. Recalibrating ritual, to deal with overwhelm and confusion.

Meanwhile, I learned about recent findings in behavioral psychology which confirm that ritual is an evolutionary response that human brains have developed to deal with uncertainty and bring order into our lives. In this article, I want to share with you both my experiences and scientific insights to help you design your own personal rituals.

If you’re willing, let’s dive into one of the most natural ways we have available for managing emotions. We’ll explore the simple yet powerful workings of rituals.

From Group Rites to the Psychology of Ritual

Rituals have been present in human life for a long time. Anthropologists believe that the first proto-rituals emerged before any form of religious beliefs. The ritual theory of myth by Robertson Smith proposes that “the earliest religions consisted primarily of actions rather than ideas, and that the latter was adapted as ex post facto rationalizations of the former.”

This is in accord with the psychological view that human ritual is an evolutionary response to uncertainty. It adds structure and stability to an otherwise unpredictable world. As we’ll see in a moment, ritualistic behavior seems to be wired into our brains.

The notion that rituals have anxiety-soothing powers was first suggested by Bronisław Malinowski. In the early 20th century, he investigated the culture of tribes living on the islands of the South Pacific. He observed that when hunters went fishing to turbulent waters beyond the coral reef, they performed rituals to protect themselves from the danger. However, when they fished in the familiar, coastal area, they didn’t engage in any ritual behavior.

As modern science emerged, rituals were mostly investigated in their social context. Scholars understood them as behaviors that served to keep social order or cultivate religious beliefs. One of the most influential theorists of rituals, Arnold van Genepp, focused mainly on the rites of passage which enabled members of society to transition from one social sub-group to another.

Today, the emerging science of rituals examines how they work on the psychological level. Recent findings confirm that ritual is a very adaptive behavior that helps people stay sane in moments of uncertainty. This characteristic of ritual makes it a helpful tool we can deliberately use to enhance well-being.

I want to show you how you can do that for yourself, by designing personal rituals tailored to your needs. But first, let’s talk about what makes rituals so powerful.

How Ritual Is Different From Habit

A lot of people confuse rituals for habits. When we speak about the former, we sometimes mean the latter — and vice versa. A flagship example of how we mix these terms is the conversation around morning routines, which can involve both rituals and habits.

But from the perspective of behavioral psychology, the two have distinct differences. Nick Hobson, who has been studying the psychology and neuroscience of ritual for over a decade, says that rituals are generally more effective in regulating emotions than habits.

Before I explain why, let’s look at the main differences between them.

  • Habits are consistent behaviors that serve instrumental purposes. They usually don’t have a symbolic meaning. When repeated long enough, they create an organic change in our lives. Hobson says that habits “may change each time they are performed, rituals tend to be invariable in their performance.”
  • Rituals are also repetitive behaviors, but much more rigid in their structure than habits. Usually, they consist of particular sequences of actions that have a symbolic meaning — but not necessarily an instrumental purpose. Rituals can shift our emotional and performance states instantly, not just when they’re repeated consistently enough.

Nick Hobson defines ritual as a behavior that has these three defining traits:

  1. Invariability of performance. A ritual must have a defined, rigid and repeatable set of physical actions assigned to it. These are performed in the same order and in specific ways. For a ritual to be valid, it must adhere to a “script.”
  2. Symbolic meaning. The person engaging in the ritual must have a personal, meaningful connection to the performed actions. These actions often entice a sense of transcendence —i.e. experiencing a link to something “bigger than ourselves.” This can be a spiritual tradition, a socially valued concept or any idea that’s personally meaningful.
  3. Lack of purely instrumental purpose. This element means that the actions performed are not causally linked to the intended goal of the ritual. This link is arbitrary and symbolic, rather than practical. This is where the distinction between a habit and ritual is the most visible.

To understand how ritual differs from other behaviors, consider two people taking a bath.

Person A treats it as a chore that serves a practical purpose: to clean their body. They don’t put any special attention to the consecutive actions involved in taking a bath, neither do they assign symbolic meaning to them. In this case, taking a bath is a habit or a routine.

But to person B, who approaches it as a weekly self-care ritual, this is different. The primary purpose isn’t just to clean their body; it’s to rejuvenate their spirit. For that, they have a specific order of meaningful activities: lighting candles, putting a hot drink next to the tub, adding essential oils to the water and massaging their skin with a sponge.

When the symbolic meaning of the activity has priority over the practical one, then we’re talking about a ritual rather than habit or routine.

Ritual as an Evolved Mechanism of Regulating Emotions

Most people intuitively sense that rituals can help them through difficulties. And science confirms that. Rituals have specific functions that make them highly adaptive, helpful behaviors.

Nick Hobson and colleagues reviewed a lot of studies around rituals in their paper. Based on that, they concluded that all rituals serve one or more of these three regulatory functions:

  • Regulating emotions,
  • regulating performance goal states, and
  • regulating social connections.

In this article, I’ll focus on the emotion-regulating function of personal rituals. If you want to know more about how rituals influence performance goals and social connections, start here or here.

Regulating emotions means closing the gap between the current and the desired emotional state. There are two angles from which science examines how rituals help us with that.

On one hand, at least four studies have shown that engaging in ritualistic behaviors has beneficial effects on our emotional state.

In one study, Michael Norton and Francesca Gino found that among people who dealt with the loss of a loved one, those who engaged in rituals reported feeling less grief than those who didn’t. Afterward, scientists tested this premise as a hypothesis in a controlled experiment. The participants were invited to take part in a lottery and all of them lost. However, those who performed a ritual afterward displayed fewer signs of grief connected to the loss.

The second (and maybe less obvious) link between rituals and emotional regulation is that when people experience emotional distress, they intuitively resort to repetitive, ritualistic behaviours.

Martin Lang and colleagues conducted an experiment in which participants were assigned to a high-anxiety or low-anxiety condition group. In the former group, people were asked to give a presentation on a sculpture in front of angry judges. Throughout the presentation, they held the sculpture in their hands, with motion-tracking technology fitted on their wrists.

After examining their movements, researchers found that people who experienced more anxiety unconsciously elicited repetitive, ritualistic movements. When commenting on these results, Nick Hobson wrote: “These findings confirm that the brain responds to anxious uncertainty by spontaneously generating movements that imbue a sense of personal control and order. Going back to our argument, the brain does this as an evolved response to help a person deal with uncertainties that are beyond his or her control.”

It seems that rituals are much more than just arbitrary tools in regulating emotions. At the core, they are an evolutionary response our brains developed to deal with uncertainty. Knowing this, we can take rituals beyond automatic coping mechanisms and plan them deliberately to fully use their power.

This is exactly what I’ll encourage you to do through creating your personal rituals. But before we get there, let’s answer one more question: why rituals work so well on the human mind?

The Psychology of Emotion Regulation Through Ritual

“Ritual actions do not produce a practical result on the external world — that is one of the reasons why we call them ritual. But to make this statement is not to say that ritual has no function… it gives members of the society confidence, it dispels their anxieties, and it disciplines their social organizations.” — George C. Homans, Anxiety and Ritual

The basic thing to understand about the human brain is that it’s wired to survive, not thrive. Due to negative cognitive bias, we’re more inclined to detect threats than pleasurable aspects of our experience. In the modern world, where we aren’t as likely to be in danger as our caveman ancestors, the negative bias causes us to experience exaggerated negative emotions.

The thing is, our main concern these days is to thrive, not survive. And it’s hard to thrive from the place of overwhelming anxiety, fear or grief. That’s why the emotion-regulation power of ritual can be such a game-changer for a modern homo sapiens.

To fully foster its power, it helps to understand where this power comes from. Nick Hobson says that the reason rituals can have such a big impact on emotional regulation is that they combine two main ways in which we process information. Psychologists call them bottom-up and top-down cognitive processing.

1. Bottom-up processing

Bottom-up processing refers to collecting individual perceptions and constructing an experience from them. It’s akin to synthesis. In rituals, bottom-up processing refers to the rigid physical actions that direct our attention and sensory experience in very specific ways.

How does it help with emotional regulation?

First, by focusing on completing a sequence of activities, the mind enters a very structured experience. This induces a sense of stability, calm, and predictability. Additionally, if the activity we’re performing is pleasant, it directly reinforces positive emotions.

Second, by completing the sequence, we gain a sense of control and accomplishment. Successfully going through the motions of a ritual reaffirms our agency over our lives. According to Self-Determination Theory, this is one of the three basic needs for a satisfying life.

Finally, we perceive ourselves through the lens of what we repeatedly do. Self-signaling is a process of reinforcing how we want to see ourselves through our actions — for example, engaging in rituals. Benjamin Hardy put it best: “how you see yourself is highly fluid and based on your own behaviors. As your behavior changes, your perceived identity changes.”

The bottom-up processing is often at the core of the rituals that athletes perform before the main contest. This helps them instill a sense of control, familiarity, and successful completion before they even tackle the challenge.

2. Top-down processing

On the other hand, the power of ritual is strengthened by top-down processing. This refers to the cognition that’s driven by what we knew, believed or valued prior. It’s akin to analysis. In rituals, top-down processing integrates the arbitrary physical actions into a broader, usually symbolic context. It makes the ritual feel special and separates it from other, non-ritualistic behaviors.

How does it help with emotional regulation?

When we engage in an activity that’s personally meaningful, it connects us to the bigger picture. Most rituals link us to a religious tradition, nature, ancestry or whatever else we value as something “bigger than ourselves.” When ritual reminds us of such a connection, it alleviates negative emotions and enhances the transcendent ones — such as awe or inspiration.

That said, research has shown that even ad hoc rituals that don’t connect to a socially recognized tradition can regulate emotions successfully. One experiment showed that merely labeling a behavior as a “ritual” contributed to decreased negative emotions and an increased sense of control.

On top of that, Nick Hobson and colleagues think that the top-down processes in rituals can impact not just emotions themselves — but also our attitude to emotions. By infusing more meaning into our lives, rituals help us by “making anxieties seem more fleeting and manageable.”

How I Established My Personal Rituals, and How You Can Do It

The modern world is constructed in a way that requires you to thrive if you want to consider your life successful. This means you need to effectively deal with psychological difficulties all the time. What’s more, you’re often expected to do that on your own.

At work, you need to be creative and productive on demand — regardless of how you feel. This means regulating your emotions in real-time because the text task is already waiting. Meanwhile, there’s stuff going on in your personal life. To come across as someone who “has it together,” you also need to keep that in check.

But handling your feelings while maintaining steady performance day in and day out isn’t an easy task. A lot of people lack adequate support from others when comes to their emotional life. This can make emotion regulation seem like an impossible challenge.

That’s where the power of personal rituals comes in. Having meaningful rituals for different occasions allows you to take charge of the situation. They help you regain agency over the present moment. They provide you with a framework for the exact kind of self-care that you need.

To create a meaningful ritual for yourself, start by taking a moment to identify which emotions exactly you’d like it to help you with. What feelings do you experience regularly that overwhelm you? In which areas of your life would you like the ritual to support you?

Then, when you’ll be thinking about the practical side of your ritual, make sure it contains all the three elements that make it a ritual. Further, make sure that you engage both bottom-up and top-down cognitive processing.

To help you with the latter, here’s an additional checklist:

1. For bottom-up processes to be engaged, make sure your ritual meets at least one of the following conditions:

  • It has a clearly defined sequence of actions that you’re capable of completing regardless of how you feel.
  • Performing the ritual induces positive feelings — e.g. pleasure, relaxation or confidence.
  • You perceive at least some parts of the ritual as expressions of “the best version of yourself.”

2. For top-down processes to be engaged, make sure your ritual meets at least one of the following conditions:

  • You mentally label it as a ritual and assign a specific purpose to it.
  • Engaging in the ritual reminds you of a connection to something bigger than yourself.
  • The performed activities allow you to create a healthy distance between you and your emotions.

If this still doesn’t sound very clear, I hope I can make it more tangible by describing three of my own personal rituals. With which, I will explain:

  • what purpose it serves for me,
  • how and why it does the job,
  • what are the core elements of this ritual that you can draw upon to create something similar for yourself.

Let’s get started.

The Grounding Ritual

Purpose:

Entering the present moment, overcoming anxiety, creating a sense of security, stability, and agency over my life.

Practice:

My grounding ritual developed naturally when I was traveling a lot. As I moved frequently, I wanted to find a way to make myself at home wherever I went. I discovered that this could be achieved by interacting with a familiar object, in the same way, each time.

Today, my main grounding ritual is lighting a candle and burning palo santo. The precise steps are the following:

  1. I light the candle.
  2. I take a few moments staring at the flame, feeling my breath and body.
  3. I light a palo santo stick from the candle.
  4. I circle the room, smelling and observing the smoke.
  5. I put palo santo down and leave the candle burning for as long as I want to feed on its grounding power.

I often do this ritual in the morning, just before I start writing. I tend to feel a lot of anxiety around my work, worrying about whether I’ll be able to focus, be productive, etc. Engaging in the grounding ritual helps me put my feet on the ground and experience a sense of security, rather than drowning in anxiety.

From this place, it’s much easier to do my best work.

How to:

If you want to create a grounding ritual for yourself, I recommend you go for something simple. Make it short, make it portable and engage your senses. For this, it helps to have one or two small objects (in my case: candle and palo santo) that you can carry with you, in case you want to perform the ritual outside your house.

Having a physical object makes it easy to stimulate your senses. Just make sure this stimulation is pleasant for you — like the view of the flame or the scent of palo santo is for me.

The Letting Go Ritual

Purpose:

Moving on, ceasing to hold a grudge, overcoming repulsion or attachment towards a person, event or idea.

Practice:

Sometimes, I experience a sense of unhealthy attachment or repulsion to someone or something. When I see myself obsessively thinking up an agenda to either attract or avoid a specific experience, I know I created a limiting bond with it. In those cases, I resort to a letting go ritual.

A powerful instance of this ritual was burning a pinch of marijuana in a bonfire.

At the time, I was struggling with believing in myself, particularly in my creative abilities. Somehow, I got the idea that smoking weed could help me with that. Soon, I found that marihuana was doing more harm than good because I was compelled to smoke it all the time.

I got attached to the idea of an external crutch to support my creativity.

When I saw this happening, I decided to get rid of the weed. Symbolically, I transferred all my feelings of self-doubt and dependency on it and performed a letting go ritual.

  1. I took a shower to wash down all that was holding me back.
  2. I collected wood for the bonfire.
  3. I lit it and watched the fire grow.
  4. I threw the weed into the fire and watched it burn.

I can’t tell you how powerful the effect was on my psyche. In the days after, I experienced myself in a new way, as if I was given a fresh start. I gave myself permission not to be directed by self-doubt and started believing in myself in a way that previously seemed out of reach.

How to:

This ritual worked because the object itself — the weed — was hard for me to let go of. I had in mind that I paid for it and “was supposed to” use it productively. Giving up these kinds of ideas was forced to occur when I decided to burn it.

Each time I’ve done a letting go ritual, it consisted of two parts. First, it involved a symbolical “transference” of the idea I wanted to leave behind to a physical object. Second, it was about getting rid of that object in an irreversible way.

If you decide to do this, I recommend you choose an object that you’re at least slightly attached to. This way, the ritual will be more powerful. Then, you can get rid of it in one of the following ways: burn it, tear it into parts, drown it or give it to someone you’re unlikely to see again.

The Recalibrating Ritual

Purpose:

Clearing my mind, creating space for the new, dealing with overwhelm, giving myself a fresh start.

Practice:

I use this ritual when I want to push the “reset” button. Sometimes it’s connected to work, other times — to a personal decision I can’t seem to make. In both cases, what I usually need is to empty some space in my mind. This allows new insights to enter my awareness.

Whenever I do the recalibrating ritual, it takes a big chunk of my day because its purpose is to really put me in a different headspace. Like the letting go ritual, it consists of two parts:

(1) going for a long walk in nature and

(2) sitting down in a café to doodle in my notebook.

The first part serves to clear my head and leave “old thoughts” behind. Then, as I sit in a cozy but unfamiliar space of a coffee shop, I invite “new thoughts” to come to me. I may write about them or draw them on paper. The purpose is to record the insights that arise during this ritual.

How to:

The recalibrating ritual has a lot to do with space. Because its purpose is to metaphorically clear my mind, I achieve it by playing around with the physical space I’m in. Putting myself in new surroundings works well. In the past, I also used to recalibrate by rearranging my bedroom.

Recalibrating also has a lot to do with feelings of comfort. The “new thoughts” come to me more easily when I experience a sense of abundance, relaxation or even luxury. This is what going to a café does to me — by ordering my favorite food or drink and enjoying it, I give myself the feeling of being taken care of.

It may help to think about what activity would entice this feeling for you. If you create a sense of abundance, your mind enters the thriving mode and becomes more creative again.

Design a Ritual That Allows You to Support Yourself

The beauty of personal rituals is that they can be used in any situation. Whether you’re at home, at work, in the commute or on holidays, there’s always a way to incorporate a ritual into your life.

That’s because of its symbolic nature. The activities it involves may seem insignificant on the outside. But as long as they connect you to your values, priorities or aspirations, the ritual will work for you. This is highly personal — you’re the only one who decides what’s meaningful for you and what isn’t.

At the same time, a tailored ritual gives you the power to direct your attention to whatever you choose. If you do this deliberately and regularly, it can alter your self-image into a more helpful one.

Rituals may have started as automatic, evolutionary mechanisms the human brain developed to shield itself from uncertainty. Today, we know a lot more about how it works — and hence, we can foster its power more intentionally.

I hope that you give it a try and gift yourself with a meaningful personal ritual. Once you get it right, it will support you even in the most challenging moments. It’s something so inherently yours that nobody can ever take it away from you.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Marta Brzosko

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I write for those who want to know themselves better. Join my newsletter here: https://afoot.life/

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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