In our research investigating mental health during early COVID-19 lockdowns (involving 8,000+ participants worldwide), we found that engaging with religion/spirituality, which typically contributes to improved wellbeing, was associated with increased anxiety. We suggest that a lack of structured rituals during lockdown may have been fundamental here.
Being the social creatures we are, having social networks and its associated bonds of reciprocity and trust has frequently been linked to wellbeing, and it is thought that rituals – frequent group gatherings – are particularly good at facilitating such networks.
Through a series of pre-pandemic studies, we (Coventry University researchers in collaboration with the University of Oxford and Cambridge) found that engaging in rituals together with others leads to positive emotions, which are associated with increased feelings of connectedness and social bonding. We found that this effect occurs in both religious rituals (e.g., mass on Sundays) and secular rituals (e.g., meetings at Sunday Assembly). Moreover, the more frequently people attend such rituals, the greater people’s satisfaction with relationships in their lives.
Social isolation experienced during the pandemic was one of the prime predictors of increased anxiety, together with concern about the disease itself. Engaging in rituals face-to-face with others would likely greatly alleviate social isolation, but also greatly increases one’s risk and/on getting or spreading the disease, leading to an unfortunate checkmate situation, where the safety and lives of others have to take precedence.