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The healing power of rituals: The psychological benefit of putting up holiday décor early

Photos sent in by UTHealth friends and family of their holiday rituals.
Photos sent in by UTHealth friends and family of the holiday rituals they're practicing to keep spirits high this year.

When 34-year-old Chad Barnes decorates for the holidays, he goes all out.

“I am putting up 18 Christmas trees this year,” Barnes said.

Like many others across the country, he started to deck the halls earlier than normal this year.  

“Decorating for the holidays was always a time we spent with family, and it’s just more fun to go over the top,” Barnes said. “Now people expect that I’m going to all out for Christmas and it brings a lot of joy to people. It makes me happy and everyone else loves it just as much as I do.”

According to Vineeth John, MD, MBA, professor of psychiatry with McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), Barnes is harnessing the power of rituals, familiar acts that have special meaning.

“Rituals such as decorating for the holidays are indeed healing and in some ways can give you back the sense of personal identity that’s been forced out during the pandemic,” said John, a geriatric psychiatrist in the Louis A. Faillace, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences who sees patients at UT Physicians. “Decorating early is a way to try to reclaim our traditions and rituals that offer us confluence of memories, identity, connections, and family. They offer a way to restore, at least partially, what’s been lost due to the impact of the pandemic and return to our authentic selves.”

John said suddenly changing the way we live, work, and interact with others during the pandemic and forgoing in-person interactions for digital ones has contributed to the corrosion of identity for many.  

“We really need a sense of validation and reciprocity from others to enhance our sense of self. Digital interactions are great, but they do not fully substitute the power and potential of physical proximity to unleash our creativity and spirit of collaboration. So, what we are left with are our rituals which can help anchor our identity during these times,” John said.

Grieving the loss of control 

When we think of grief, we often think of the loss of a loved one. And while that is tragically something many people are wrestling with during the pandemic, many are also simply grieving the loss of control.

“By creating or performing rituals, we are taking action and controlling what little we can,” John said.

“I see it as reclaiming agency,” said Nathan Carlin, PhD, professor and Samuel E. Karff, D.H.L. Chair in the John P. McGovern, M.D., Center for Humanities and Ethics at UTHealth. “I think that so much of our lives are out of control at the moment and we have control over so little, this is one thing people can do to bring joy to their lives on their own terms. Rituals are a way that we can give our lives structure and meaning.”

Research shows that rituals can have beneficial effects on perceived control and can help reduce grief.

Trigger the therapeutic power of memories

Sometimes what we need to turn our mood around already exists in our memories. For many, holiday decorating is a way to call those memories to mind.

“When we respond to a crisis, it is easy to maximize bad things and minimize good things – thoughts like ‘everything is terrible, nothing is good’ – these are cognitive distortions,” John said. “Remembering memories is like wielding a small shield against this distorted way of thinking. Remembering the great times you’ve experienced in the past and anchoring those memories could help you avoid distorting your thinking just because of the events that happened this year.”

Barnes said many of his Christmas decorations have a story behind them, and putting them up is a way to spark those memories. In addition to reflecting on the past, he also said decorating helps him to look forward.

“When I see my decorations up, I know the year is almost up and it’s time to start over fresh – a new year, new things,” Barnes said. “That’s something we’re all looking forward to after this year.”

Add light to the dark 

If you’re working from home and the days are blurring together, Carlin says putting up decorations is an easy way to brighten your mood, and maybe your neighbor’s too.

“If every day looks the same and things are starting to feel dull and monotonous, why not get something out of the garage and hang it up? That doesn’t cost money. Decorating with what you have is almost like an act of defiance to your environment. It’s playful, adds color to your home, and possibly even your neighborhood,” Carlin said.

Never too late to start rituals

If you don’t have existing rituals, John says it’s not too late to start some that hold personal meaning.

“The rituals should have a personal touch and should be something that you enjoy, and that will elevate your state of wellbeing,” John said. “It can be as simple as a phone call to a loved one, a short prayer, an exercise routine, or sending a gift to let someone know you are thinking of them. These things help keep us real and make us less prone to demoralization. Thus, our rituals can be lifelines for us.”

Don’t be afraid to reach out for help 

Rituals and healthy habits can improve our mental health, but don’t hesitate to seek help if they are not enough.

“If there is a pattern of consistent and prolonged sense of sadness and helplessness which has been impacting your ability to function well, focus, sleep, eat, affecting your energy and your sense of wellbeing – and especially if those changes are noticeable to others – you may have slipped into initial stages of depression,” John said.

If you or a loved one are feeling overwhelmed, there are resources available, including the Crisis Text Line. Simply text HOME to 741741 to reach a professional counselor. If you are experiencing a crisis, please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. To make an appointment with a UT Physicians mental health specialist, call 888-4UT-DOCS.

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