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  • A D Ackerman

Rituals


© AD Ackerman 2019

I had a great idea for my post this week. I was going to talk about some of my daily or weekly rituals and how helpful I have found them in my life. I thought that this was a discovery that I had made for myself. I was convinced that you would think I was a genius for making this discovery. Then, I did an internet search to see what was out there. And I discovered that neuroscientists have known for many years that rituals have great power in our lives.


Perhaps you think of a ritual as something that happens as a part of a religious service or rite, or something that happens under the light of the full moon. And, yes, that can be true. But in fact, a ritual is something, anything that you do repetitively, in the same way, over time. So, you may have a morning ritual of making and drinking your coffee or tea, or stopping at your favorite café on the way to work, or doing a few sun salutations upon awakening—things that help you get your day off to a positive start. You feel incomplete if you don’t get to do them. That’s a ritual.


I was planning to talk about my daily rituals of waking up, taking care of my morning hygiene, then making a cup of coffee and sitting on my deck to do the daily crossword and Sudoku puzzles to get my brain in gear for the day. Or, I was going to tell you about my weekly self-care ritual on Sunday afternoons of yoga class, followed by coming home and taking a long, leisurely bath, then fixing dinner for my husband and my middle daughter who comes to visit on Sunday evenings. I was going to explain to you how these rituals are part of my relatively-recently developed approach to self-care, and that they bring me peace of mind, and allow me to feel complete in my day and comfortable in my week. But then I read what was already out there and found out that there is actually scientific data to support the use of rituals in our daily lives.


So, whether you always rub a rabbit’s foot to bring you good luck before an important event, or you have found some other “good luck charm,” or you always throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder to undo some perceived “bad omen” you are helping your brain to be more positive. Rituals can help increase the levels of “feel good” chemicals in your brain, such as dopamine and serotonin. They can also make you or your family members or employees feel more comfortable and confident in daily life; and this carries over to the rest of their lives. Our children feel more secure when they can depend upon the nightly ritual of bedtime story and/or lullaby or whatever you and they have devised to help them sleep. It has little to do with the actual thing and everything to do with the fact that you do it. Eating dinner as a family can be seen as a ritual also, and studies have proven that this simple act has a profoundly beneficial effect on the children that carries over into their adult lives.


I was reminded recently, while talking with my fellow coaches, about the phenomenon of physician burnout, that using rituals can help ease the pain of dealing with a bad outcome. I reflected upon how, during my active years as a pediatric intensivist, when a child for whom I was providing care died, I would stand at the bedside and cry along with the parents. This helped me to cope with the death, and it helped the parents to realize that I cared. I had been told by numerous “mentors” early in my career, that crying at the bedside was inappropriate. However, only ONCE in my career did a parent tell me not to cry in her presence. The others were grateful and many wrote me letters months or years later telling me how seeing me cry (it was usually just tears rolling down my face quietly, not overt sobbing), brought them some consolation, helped them to realize their child’s life was important to us as well as to them.


The other ritual I would engage in with my entire staff of nurses, docs, medical students, therapists and anyone else who knew the child was to have a talk—a debrief of the events that led to the child’s death. This was done routinely, after every death, or other unexpected outcome and was so helpful to folks who could express their concerns and doubts, their fears that they might have done something in error. Knowing that this would happen was reassuring to the staff. They knew they could express their concerns, and they knew that their colleagues would listen. They had something to look forward to when they came back to work after such an event. They didn’t have to worry whether their colleagues would be interested in talking about the event. Knowing that we all shared similar reactions and feelings was important, but I firmly believe that it was the ritual part that was most important. This created a sense of safety and security.


So, the bottom line is if you add rituals to your life you will feel better. It’s even better if the performance of the ritual is also good for your physical health (like exercise, yoga and/or meditation). When you combine them you can derive great benefit from your daily or weekly routine.


What about you? Do you have any rituals? I am curious to learn about your creative use of rituals that might be unique to you, and whether they have enhanced your courage to achieve new things, perform better in your job or in athletics, or serve as blueprints for your children as they mature. Or perhaps tell us about how you might use routines in the future—to enhance your mood, get more done, stop procrastinating or improve a relationship.


Thanks for reading! I value your time and presence. Please come find me on Twitter at @CoachingADA, or on LinkedIn. Or send me an email at Alice@adackerman.com

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© 2019 Alice D. Ackerman, MD, MBA

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