THE BLOG
03/15/2013 05:14 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2013

The Scoop on Rituals

Every morning after I wake up, I wash my face, brush my teeth and scurry downstairs to walk my Maltese poodle in the backyard. I carry a flashlight because of the recent coyote sightings. I return inside to the kitchen and push the button on my espresso machine. I sit at the kitchen table with a strong cup of java beside my latest magazine or book. After drinking my coffee, I stroll to another room and meditate for 20 minutes. I then get dressed and either go to the gym or to my computer to begin my day's work. If a situation, person or event interrupts this series of rituals, I feel as if I have lost my center and my day does not start off right. There just seems to be a sense of indescribable uneasiness.

We all have ritualistic behaviors that tend to be comforting and grounding. When raising children, rituals instill a sense of security and love. With senior citizens, it helps them with memory. Studies have shown that medical personnel, including doctors and nurses, who ritualistically wear white lab coats feel more focus the same professionals who do not. I believe this to be true.

For example, when my physician suspected a possible cancer diagnosis, he referred me to a prominent Los Angeles oncologist -- an oncologist to Hollywood stars. I checked in with the receptionist and patiently waited my turn. The physician's nurse called my name and walked me into the examination room and moments later the tall, friendly, and self-composed physician entered. It was the first time I was greeted by a physician who was not wearing a lab coat, but rather, wore a pinstriped suit, a designer tie and a stethoscope folded into his suit pocket. On the back of the examination room door hung a white lab coat, which he glanced at and then turned towards me. I wished he had put that lab coat on. Even though he might have considered his demeanor friendlier without it, I saw it as a bit cavalier and thought my appointment might have been sandwiched between a lunch date or a lecture at the nearby medical school. While his expertise and words instilled confidence, I would have preferred that he donned a white lab coat, like the nurse who brought me into the examination room. I confess that I see the ritual of wearing white to be a healing one.

I can think of another example of ritualistic behavior associated with sports. When living in Florida and raising three children, I played on four tennis teams. I was very competitive and noticed that those who won the most tennis matches (and this is not a scientific study), were those who not only wore matching tennis whites, but also those players who bounced the ball four times before serving, made sure their wristbands were in place, had a sip of water when changing court sides, and shook hands in a particular way at the end of a match.

Ritualistic behavior minimizes stress levels for both humans and animals. A 2011 study by the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University showed a clear link between repetitive or ritualistic behavior and a sense of calm. Ritualistic behavior gives us a sense that we are in control of our situation. Of course, when it's taken to the extreme and/or exaggerated, an individual may be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Professor David Eliam at the University of Tel Aviv identified two components to ritualistic behavior -- heads and tails. The heads pertains to "preparatory activity" like the bouncing of the ball prior to the serve, and the tails pertains to "getting the job done," or actually initiating the serve. Typically, those who have OCD are able to perform the preparatory activities, but they have difficulty getting the job done; in this case, actually serve the ball. Many OCD individuals make very complicated rituals for themselves, making it more and more difficult to accomplish anything during the course of their day or accomplishing significantly less than the non-OCD individual.

Whatever rituals you choose to have, they should be positive. Here are some suggestions:

  • Start your day with a glass of lemon water
  • Set time aside for meditation practice
  • Set daily priorities (top three)
  • Do daily exercise
  • Express gratitude
  • Write in a journal or reflect a little each day