Rituals & Trauma

Written by Francine Baffa, LICSW, BCBA-D
Edited by Joe DeNoon


Trauma gets frozen inside of us and limits our ability to move forward; in turn, we become blocked and unable to become our authentic selves. To heal, we must find ways to move not only past the trauma but through the trauma.

Rituals can provide concrete ways to provide comfort and self-compassion while we work to give closure to specific trauma in our lives. However, rituals go further than helping us to live out our values—they enable us to do so with less anxiety. They convince our brains of constancy and predictability, and that can buffer against uncertainty, according to researchers. It has been shown that rituals can offer numerous psychological advantages, such as helping us savor experiences, giving us a sense of control, and reducing worry and dread. Rituals can also enhance how much control we feel we have and return a sense of agency back to the individual.

Rituals also help to structure our lives. People develop rituals that demarcate significant social events.  In the book “What My Bones Know”, author Stephanie Foo speaks to how routine and structure provided her with strength and a sense of calm during various transitions in her life. First, there is the one she creates for herself during her early childhood. Later when her mother leaves, we see this shift in her talking about the structure she provides for her father. These routines add to her own resiliency. Researchers now assert that the level of residual trauma is a calculation of event + one’s own resilience. George Bonanno, drawing on many decades of research, explains what makes us resilient and how we can better handle traumatic stress. She continues to go to school, is on the student newspaper, graduates, and then transitions to college. College is another way she provides structure for herself. With these routines and rituals she created, she also can create her own sense of safety. 

This does not necessarily translate to her feeling fully safe in the world, but she creates enough safety to keep her mind busy. As a result, she is not in a constant trauma cycle.  

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.”  Rituals guide us and give our lives a rhythm to align with our moves.

    • DISCOVER: Find a mindful moment to grab a journal or take mental notes.
    • COMMIT: Next is all about taking one of those values or desires you identified and cultivating practical, measurable actions. 
    • HABITIZE: Now it’s time to turn this positive action into a ritual!

We as practitioners and mental health clinicians can look to build rituals in our everyday life. They can include activities at home or at work. For example, you may set up an AM routine prior to arriving on site — it may include meditation, journaling, or time with your husband or children. Likewise, you may develop a routine at work — after lunch, take a walk, and after rounds, designate some quiet time to reflect. Any use of time blocks can be an effective way to add structure if it is done with intent and consistency.

Note from Samantha Wall: In the next blog, I will be discussing in more detail how to apply this knowledge to our daily lives, as Francine did at the end of this blog. I will discuss how you all can build resiliency through routines and rituals as well as how to create a space for yourself to heal, like Stephanie Foo in her book “What My Bones Know.” If you have any questions about this blog or topic in general, please put it in the comments and I will make sure to answer it in my blog that comes out on 3/15/2023.

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