Posted on: May 4, 2020 at 5:48 pm

In the midst of a global pandemic, health officials around the world have been encouraging their citizens to be extra-vigilant with washing their hands and cleaning their homes, particularly commonly-touched surfaces and objects, like a door handle or a phone.

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This ritualistic cleaning, it appears, may serve a dual-purpose.

Ritualistic Behaviour and Anxiety

A study published in the Journal Current Biology found that stress can induce ritualized behavior and more redundant, repetitive, and rigid hand movements. The authors of this study found that this caused participants to engage in obsessive cleaning [1].

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To perform the study, researchers at the University of Connecticut presented a group of students with a shiny statue. They asked the students to come up with a speech about the statue, and once they had given the speech, they were asked to clean it.

The researchers analyzed the way the students cleaned the statue and compared that with a control group, who cleaned it without having to give a speech [2].

The researchers evaluated the students based on three categories: redundancy, repetitiveness, and rigidity. Redundancy refers to actions that exceed what is necessary to achieve a goal, repetitiveness is recurrent behaviors or utterances, and rigidity is the level of exactness to which the students performed the task [1].

The study showed that the students who had to give a speech showed an increase in repetitiveness and rigidity, but not redundancy. Essentially, the amount of anxiety the participants felt predicted how many hand movements they made during cleaning, and how long they cleaned the object before deciding that it had been adequately cleaned [1,2].

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Read: Daytime Naps Boost Your Heart and Brain Health, Reduce Stress and Much More

A Feeling of Control

Both humans and animals experience stress when they find themselves in an uncertain situation that they cannot control, causing them to resort to repetitive motor actions or movements as a coping mechanism [3].

These behaviors are often similar to those exhibited by individuals who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and are used in an attempt to regain control of a situation [4].

Obsessive cleaning is a manifestation of this tactic, however, if it is not an option, an anxious or stressed person may resort to other repetitive behaviors, like biting their nails or praying [2].

Prof. David Eilam of TAU’s Department of Zoology at the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences conducted found that ritualistic behavior under stress can be seen in both humans and animals [5].

He explains that every activity that we do involves three phases- preparatory, functional, and confirmatory. The functional phase is the specific action that must occur in order to complete the task, while the preparatory and confirmatory (also called the head and tail), are completed before and after the action, and are not actually necessary to complete it.

His team looked at common actions performed by people, and compared those actions to basketball players shooting a free-throw. Technically, all they have to do is shoot the ball to complete the action, but most players perform specific ritualistic actions before each shot, such as bouncing the ball precisely six times.

“The routine they perform in the moments before shooting the ball is a method to focus their full concentration and control their actions.” Prof. Eilam says [5].

Head and tail activities can be seen during daily activities as well, however, they appear to be performed more often during times of stress.

Read: Do You Have Pandemic Anxiety? Tips to Cope If You may be Sleepless, Forgetful and Angry.

Prediction Error Signals

Your brain’s primary job is to draw conclusions about the future and to align behavior with those predictions. To do this, your brain gathers as much data as possible and puts it into the predictor system. The problem, however, is that the brain can’t get enough information to accurately predict the future, leading to feelings of uncertainty.

This uncertainty causes your brain to set off “prediction error signals”, which produces feelings of anxiety [6].

Rituals, however, bring order and structure to our world, which is more often than not, incoherent and chaotic. The act of performing a specific sequence of movements tricks your brain into thinking that experiencing predictability and stability.

When uncertainty is beyond our control, our brains will subconsciously cause us to engage in ritualized movements as compensation, and to bring about a sense of personal control [6].

Read: The Mushroom Shown to Help Reduce Anxiety and Depression

Add Ritual to Your Life to Ease Anxiety

While in some cases, such as with OCD, rituals can become unhealthy, for most of us rituals are an effective way to give us structure when we feel structure is lost, and to make us feel safe. Rituals, such as those you might find in a cultural or religious ceremony, fulfill a psychological need to bring order to our lives.

If you find you are dealing with increasing amounts of stress and anxiety, consider adding some rituals into your day, or committing more strongly to the ones that you already have. A ritual could be deep breathing every morning before you get out of bed, or even simply following a morning routine that is the same every day.

Now, more than ever, when our lives have been turned upside down and our usual routines have been all but abandoned, including some structure and ritual to your day can ease your stress and bring about a sense of calm.

Keep Reading: Effects of Anxiety on the Body

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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