We all have tiny rituals in our lives that help us get through the day and stay sane. Whether we make time to exercise or enjoy a private moment with a cup of coffee, those rituals improve our mental — and physical — health. Thankfully, it's easy to make time for yours, and to develop your own if you don't have them already.
What Do You Mean by "Personal Rituals?"
Every day, usually in the afternoon, I have a little tea ceremony at my desk. I get my four-cup tea press, put on a kettle to boil, and meticulously add the leaves and put the press, my tea cup, a little sweetener (usually honey) and a spoon on a bamboo tray that fits nicely on my desk while I work. When the water boils, I take its temperature, pour the water over the leaves, set a timer on my phone, stir and bring the whole tray to my desk. I relax while it steeps — usually just watching the steam rising off of it. When the timer goes off, I press the tea, pour my first cup, and go back to work. It's elaborate, but it's one of my little rituals that helps me disengage for a bit — something meditative that helps me get through the afternoon.
Each of us have parts of our daily routine that help us face the day, whether they're conscious things we take time out for, like my tea ceremony, or subconscious ways we de-stress. When we don't have those rituals or coping mechanisms in place to help us, we fail to shake the pressure of the day.
If you ask yourself how you cope with stress, you may already have an answer. You might exercise, or spend time with your family, or talk to someone who cares about you. Those are all healthy. Alternatively, you might partake in a little "retail therapy" or have a few drinks, which can be unhealthy and come with their own problems. The important thing is that you recognise how you deal with your stressors. Make sure the rituals you turn to are ones that you choose and that help you manage stress, not the other way around.
Why It's Important to Have Healthy Rituals (Or Else Unhealthy Ones Take Root)
We've talked about what stress really does to you. Without the right coping mechanisms, it can have a serious impact on our mental and physical health. Aside from having no way to "vent", the lack of healthy habits leaves room for unhealthy ones to take root.
Roger Gil, a mental health clinician who specialises in marriage and family therapy, explained the way stress builds up inside us with this visual metaphor:
Our emotions are like waves of water whose kinetic energy must be expelled in order for the water to return to its natural, placid state. That being said, if we don't engage in self-care activities of some sort, then we are leaving the "kinetic energy" of our "emotional waves" inside of us; which can lead to that "stressed out", agitated feeling we are all familiar with. For some people, it can get worse and cause anxiety or several other negative emotional states. In the end, not taking care of our stress can impair our ability to function in even the simplest of tasks.
Deliberate self-care activities are critical to reducing the likelihood that our negative emotional states do not worsen and lead to unhealthy coping rituals (i.e. drinking, drug abuse, etc.). Making an overt effort to care for one's emotional health improves work performance, mood, and overall physical health. By defining a self-care activity, we can incorporate it into our daily routines and begin to not see the self-care as a waste of time and view it as a healthy reward that worth looking forward to.
Like we mentioned, you may already have a few rituals to calm down after a long day or get back on track after a tense conversation at work. Whatever they are, don't underestimate how critical they are to your mental and physical health.
How to Develop and Make Time for Your Personal Rituals
Now that we've defined what these rituals are and why they're important, how do you go about building them yourself? It's not difficult, but you do need to find the activities that will work for you and make time for them.
Step 1: Track Your Mood and Identify Your Stress Points
It's easy to say "work stresses me out!" but identifying the things that bother you is only part of the battle. After all, you can't turn your work into something it isn't, but you can change the way you respond to it and how work makes you feel.
First, start tracking your mood. It may take several days, but you can quickly go from "I had a bad day yesterday" to "Those wednesday project meetings always leave me stressed out." Roger explains:
It's helpful to get an idea of what your triggers for stress or emotional distress are so that you can determine whether or not a self-care activity is something that should be done daily, weekly, etc. I often tell people to keep a log of their emotional states for a week or two to see what their emotional baselines are as well as to identify any periods where they are distressed. There are many helpful mood-tracking apps that are available for smartphones (I prefer these because they often yield reports and identify trends). Using our phones can also help us if we set up reminders to get us to log our emotional states at certain times of day. If a person is not too keen on using technology, they can carry around a small notepad and devise a system for tracking their moods that includes the time of day, the name of their mood, and brief descriptions of their physical state (e.g. nauseous, tense muscles, etc.). I also have these people make a habit out of writing down their moods at mealtimes because it's a little easier to remember since most people eat at the same times every day.
We've talked about a few apps that can help you get started, like Mindbloom Juice and Moodpanda. As Roger mentioned, keeping a personal notebook is another option, as long as you remember to update it every day, and apps like Narrato or Day One can help. We've even put together our own daily log you can fill out that will identify your pain points and stressors and show them back to you so they're easy to identify.
Once you begin tracking your mood, you can easily identify your stressors (and what you did and how you felt after you ran into them). Look back over your log and try to think about what happened during those times you were stressed out, depressed, sad, or just really angry. You'll probably notice some common themes or things that get you down on a regular basis. Now it's time to organise them:
Once we have our list of triggers, we should then label our stress responses in emotional, physical, and behavioural terms. Focusing on the emotional and physical results of our triggers forces us to be more mindful of ourselves, something that is essential to countering the effects of stress and anxiety.
Making a list of the things that put pressure on you may feel counterintuitive, but getting them on paper and identifying them is an important step. The next is to brainstorm activities that will help calm your nerves when the things on your list pop up during the day.
Step 2: Define Your "Interventions", or the Rituals You Want to Pick Up
An "intervention", in this case, is a specific action you can take whenever you're stressed, but it should also be something you can do anytime, even when you're not stressed out. Make it part of your daily routine, or something that you do at a specific time each day, like my little afternoon tea ceremony. Try to come up with an "intervention" that will help you relax for each stressor you identify, and mix them up.
Whether it's taking a few minutes to meditate or just going to the bathroom and washing your face (two things Roger suggested, both of which I can vouch for as helpful in times of stress), your ritual needs to be something you can deliberately remember to do when something throws you off your game. Remember, feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or depressed are normal responses to a stressful situation, so don't beat yourself up — instead, look to your ritual, or "intervention". If it becomes a habit, all the better. A quick meditation break every day after lunch before you go back to the office, for example, can have significant benefits.
If you need some more potential "interventions" to add to your routine, these cognitive restructuring exercises may help. Simple stress busters like exercise and laughter also work well. Treat yourself to a one-minute YouTube break and fire up a video that will make you feel better. Go for a walk around your office building, or just go outside for five minutes. Get up and get a glass of water every time you're really stressed out, or make a point to fill your water bottle at specific times of day — regardless of whether you've emptied it. It only takes a few minutes to defuse a stressful situation, and a regular ritual only needs a few minutes to take the edge off of an otherwise hard day.
All of these things are rituals that you can do without interrupting your flow. If you schedule them, you can work around them and really relax when it's time to take a break. Find one that works for you (and doesn't just turn into procrastination), and fit it into your routine.
Step 3: Make it a Habit
Finally, turn those rituals into habits. Every time you're stressed out, let yourself be angry or upset. As soon as you recognise that feeling, know you have something you can do about it. Then, up the ante and go to those rituals even when you're not stressed out. Doing so hammers home their status in your routine and makes them even more potent when you are stressed out. Roger explains:
If we experience frequent emotional distress, we are essentially developing what I like to call "negative emotional muscle memory" that can cause us to react negatively to other potential stressors. In order to counter the effects of "negative emotional muscle memory", we should proactively work on improving our mood by setting up self-care routines and rituals that introduce positive feelings even when the negative emotional states are absent. For many of my clients, "latching" a self-care intervention onto an existing habit helps them set up their prevention routine.
For example, I once had a client who suffered from severe anxiety that was rooted in self-doubt put post-it notes with something they were proud of on their bathroom mirror every night when brushing their teeth. My former client would then see the note every morning when they brushed her teeth and have their mind taken to thoughts of self-efficacy rather than drifting to the negative automatic thoughts they had about themselves every morning.
Another helpful way to set up a prevention routine is to schedule some "me time" during the day. A 5 or 10 minute period where the person can meditate, grab some tea, look at cat pictures, etc. can introduce positive emotions into their day. The idea is to NOT wait until an emotional crisis to engage in self-care. In fact, waiting only until we are stressed out can lead to us associate our rituals with stress. In other words, build up your "positive emotional bank account" with relaxing activities so that you're not "emotionally overdrawn" when stress demands "payment" from you.
Practising our rituals regularly helps us deal with stress better when we can't escape it. If you're busy working when your boss tells you to come in for "mandatory overtime" this weekend, you don't have time to meditate, you have to keep going. In those moments, try to think forward to when the stress will be over and you can have that cup of tea or hit the gym. Take a "this too will pass" mindset and give yourself something to look forward to when it does. Doing so can make even stressful situations a little easier to handle.
By now you understand the things that stress you out, and you have some personal rituals you can turn to when you're stressed out, but that you can also roll into your daily routine and make part of your day. The more you embrace those rituals, even when nothing particularly stressful is happening, the more you prime yourself for the times when something does happen. Roger explained that making time for these little rituals helps us develop a "positive emotional atmosphere" that's more resilient to stress, and can help us manage our own distress when we're angry, depressed, or just emotionally drained.
Taking time for yourself can also improve your overall mood, and should never be something you only do when you're upset or stressed out. Even if you do what you love every day, love your work, are in school, or do something else with your time, taking time out to take care of yourself is important. After all, you're the only one of you there is, or ever will be. It's important to take care of yourself.
Roger S. Gil, MAMFT is a clinician who specialises in marriage and family therapy. You can follow him on Twitter at @rogergil79, and check out his blog and podcast at luvbuzd.tv.