All societies have rituals, and it’s easy to think that the big ones like weddings and funerals are the only ones that really matter. But honoring smaller, everyday rituals can be the key to improving our overall mental health—even if we’re not necessarily aware of them. “We may often not recognize our already-in-place rituals, but they do exist,” says Nils Magnusson, PMHNP-BC, FNP-C, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Minded. Brewing a morning cup of coffee or taking a shower before bedtime, for instance, can help center the mind and prepare it for activity or rest.
Everyday rituals are good for everyone, but they’re especially beneficial for people with anxiety, says Magnusson. “Rituals are tools we craft when we experience task-driven or anticipatory anxiety,” he says. “The ritual prepares and cues the ‘brain’ for the task ahead.” And these rituals don’t have to be long, drawn-out affairs to make a difference. “Daily rituals to assist in coping are related to the practice of mindfulness, but making time for meditation, taking a walk outside, time scheduled to practice your faith, time scheduled to exercise are all rituals that may help,” Magnusson says.
Here’s where things get really interesting. In 2016, a team of researchers found that performing a ritual decreases anxiety and improves performance—and crucially, labeling an activity as a ritual (as opposed to simply completing the activity) improves performance even more. In other words, taking five deep breaths before a high-pressure meeting may help calm your nerves, but if you also call it a ritual, you’re more likely to feel lower stress levels.
More than likely, you’re already doing small everyday rituals. But if you’re looking for two quick but meaningful ideas, take a cue from Kevin Gormley, PMHNP-BC, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Minded. He says he always recommends two specific rituals to his patients. The first is to begin the day by practicing gratitude. “The minute you wake up, before you check your phone or do anything else, sit on the side of the bed and ask yourself a few questions: What am I excited about today? What am I grateful for? Is there a lesson was I supposed to learn recently from a certain event or person?” he says. “Doing so can help reframe your outlook on the day, potentially boosting your mood and even your productivity.” Indeed, there’s even evidence that gratitude journaling for as little as one month can measurably improve a person’s overall mental health.
The second ritual is to make your bed. Gormley notes that accomplishing simple organizational tasks each day can improve overall life satisfaction and happiness. “It may seem like a small feat, but it builds confidence and sets the tone for accomplishment. Even if we do nothing else all day, if we make our bed, we are reminded that we accomplished something. Plus, oftentimes when we take a moment to make our bed, we are able to sleep better that night and be at peace with more relaxation, which can in turn help with feelings of anxiety and depressed mood.” Gormley notes that his patients consistently tell him that once they begin these two practices, they continue doing them for years. So if you’re looking to lower your anxiety, incorporating rituals is a very good, very simple way to start.
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