As the weather gets cold, the time arrives for people to favor all things comfortable. A ritual of relaxation is a source for needs that are ultimately human: something to look forward to and a sense of control. My form of relaxation revolves around Thursday “Girls’ Nights.” This night has become a ritual I look forward to at the end of a busy week. It is when my friends and I get together to be entertained by the NBC show, The Office. As much as we rely on that good laugh at the end of the week, our main purpose is to talk, gossip, vent and catch up with each other. We discuss the ups and downs of our lives, long after the show’s 30 minutes are up. But this ritual of relaxation cannot be a unique occurrence. Other stressed out MSU students must have similar (or not-so-similar) events they use to relax and relieve stress.[kellycat12]
Lianna Hadden, head of athletic training for MSU volleyball and cross country, has a background in sports psychology and said people create habits for a sense of control of everyday situations or life in general. If we know the next step that is coming, we don’t stress as much. People also use rituals as a form of relaxation, from breathing techniques to visualization. Rituals keep the mind focused on small goals so we don’t fixate on the greater task at hand and we don’t become overwhelmed. Hadden sees many rituals and habits performed by her athletes.
“Many athletes feel they need a routine or habit to maximally perform at their sport,” said Hadden. “I had a volleyball player who needed to chew the same flavor of gum before every match. It doesn’t matter what the habit is – it is the relaxing effect it takes on the psyche of the athlete.”
Relaxation is often an unlikely luxury in the life of a college student, but a notion of control often feels necessary. Especially as exams approach, time to slow down and unwind can often be put on the back burner. But many students employ their own personal relaxation rituals in the spare time they do have. English senior Lisa Senakiewich practices a ritual of spending the last moments of the day completely by herself. “I just go in my room and close the door. It’s my own downtime,” Senakiewich said. Senakiewich also has a ritual of calling her boyfriend at the end of each day. This is an example of the little habits created to look forward to, signaling the end of the day.
Others find relaxation though movement and productivity, like environmental biology sophomore Emily MacLeod. MacLeod cleans the house when in need of stress relief. “If my surroundings are messy and disorganized, I can’t focus. I clean and feel a sense of order,” said MacLeod. If no cleaning is necessary, MacLeod also listens to the indie pop music of Sufjan Stevens on her iPod.
[macleod1]An off-beat relaxation ritual is performed by kinesiology freshman Tiffany Evans. When feeling stressed, Evans lies on the floor and tightens every muscle in her body. After a few moments, she relaxes one muscle at a time. The freshman said the exercise makes it feels like the stress is flowing out of her body. This practice is a technique often used by athletes prior to competition and in yoga.
But what happens if a person can’t relax without performing their ritual? Sometimes people can rely on a ritual so much it can cross into dangerous territory. Sarah Carson, a doctoral kinesiology student in sports psychology, said while performing a routine, a person is in control. It is when a behavior controls a person that a ritual becomes obsessive-compulsive. “Sometimes a ritual turns into a superstition, and that’s where it starts to hurt you,” said Carson. “The sense of control a person gets from a superstition backfires because it is more about luck. Then you are giving control to a ritual.”
Dr. Lionel Rosen, psychiatrist and MSU professor, explained the dark side of rituals. Sometimes these rituals, or certain behaviors, are taught to us and sometimes we do things that result in something positive happening. Therefore we keep doing it. “When the ritual serves no rational purpose, or when it has symbolic significance but no real utility, and when it has to be repeated to the point of interfering with other normal behaviors, it is considered a compulsion,” said Dr. Rosen.
Rosen said anyone can develop rituals. People who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders are more prone to have a spectrum of rituals. Extremely orderly people, those with religious beliefs that involve rituals, and young children are also prone to develop repetitive behaviors in response to certain situations.[rosen]
After speaking with Carson and Dr. Rosen, I became slightly concerned about my enthusiasm for my Thursday night ritual. While I don’t think there is much danger of becoming obsessive about my ritual, compulsions are serious and often need to be professionally treated. Rituals become dangerous when they become a “need” and your mind can’t rest until that “need” is fulfilled.
Does a stressed out student need to relax? Yes. Should a person be dependent on routines that are familiar to obtain that stress relief? No. In this case, moderation is imperative when searching for comfort. Many MSU students find comfort in an array of rituals and habits that provide healthy stress relief. As for me, I will continue to look to my Thursday night routine as an outlet. With graduation rapidly approaching and my blood pressure rising a bit more each day, I will enjoy my ritual: happily, healthily and moderately. Whether you call it a ritual, routine or habit, Hadden summed it up simply. “Humans are creatures of habit. We like to know what is next.”

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