Ritual suffering improves psychological well-being

September 04, 2019

According to a new study published in Current Anthropology, an extreme ritual involving bodily mutilation has no detectable long-term harmful effects on participants and actually has a positive effect on psychological well-being. In "Effects of Extreme Ritual Practices of Psychophysiological Well-Being," Dimitris Xygalatas and his team investigate the effects of participation in the kavadi attam, a ritual performed annually by millions of Tamil Hindus around the world, on physical and psychological well-being.

The research is particularly important in the context of developing societies, where biomedical and folk health interventions often co-exist. "Our results stress the importance and utility of traditional cultural practices for health management," he writes. "Although these practices are not meant to substitute biomedical interventions, their complementary utility should not be overlooked, especially in contexts where psychiatric or other medical interventions are not widely available or are associated with stigma."

The kavadi is part of a longer festival of Thaipussam, which involves preparations through fasting and prayer. On the day of the ritual, devotees pierce their bodies with numerous metallic objects, including needles, hooks and rods impaled through both cheeks. Once these piercings are in place, devotees embark on a several-hour-long pilgrimage to the temple of Lord Murugan, the most popular deity among the Tamil Hindus, carrying portable altars on their shoulders. These structures are often over three meters (10ft) tall and can weigh up to 60kg (130lbs).

The study was completed using 37 participants from the Tamil Hindu community in the town of Quatre Bornes in Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. For three weekly periods before, during, and after the ritual procedures, participants wore portable monitoring devices that recorded their stress levels, sleep efficiency, and physical activity. Participants' heart rate was recorded on a daily basis during these measuring periods. Clinically and cross-culturally validated surveys were administered before and after the ritual to assess psychological wellbeing. The researchers also recorded the health and socio-economic status of the participants, and examined whether these factors predicted whether a participant chose a low or high-intensity engagement in the ritual.

Results showed that participating in the ritual had no detrimental effects on physiological health, and actually had positive effects on psychological well-being, with those who engaged in a higher number of body piercings experiencing the greatest improvements in perceived health and quality of life. Additionally, people who had been experiencing health problems or were of low socioeconomic status sought more painful levels of engagement.

The authors offer several possible explanations for the observed benefits of performing the kavadi, ranging from neurochemical processes to social factors related to participation. First, there is evidence that the sensory, physiological, and emotional hyperarousal involved in strenuous ordeals can affect the levels of neurotransmitters such as endorphins and endocannabinoids, resulting in feelings of euphoria.

There is also a great deal of evidence that shows that extreme rituals, when performed collectively, strengthen communal bonds and provide a sense of belonging. Additionally, participating in the kavadi allows participants--who are viewed as more devout and trustworthy than non-participants--to improve their social standing within the community. "Multiple lines of research suggest that individuals are strongly motivated to engage in status-seeking efforts, and that there is a strong positive relationship between social rank and subjective well-being," the researchers write. "Indeed, we found that individuals of lower socioeconomic status were more motivated to invest in the painful activities that can function as costly signals of commitment."

Whether the positive psychological effects of kavadi participation are primarily biological, social, or a combination thereof, should be a focus of further research, Xygalatas says. He also suggests expanding study length to include many kavadi events over the course of a lifetime and other possible ways to deepen the understanding of this widespread ritual.

University of Chicago Press Journals

Related Health Articles from Brightsurf:

The mental health impact of pandemics for front line health care staff
New research shows the impact that pandemics have on the mental health of front-line health care staff.

Modifiable health risks linked to more than $730 billion in US health care costs
Modifiable health risks, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and smoking, were linked to over $730 billion in health care spending in the US in 2016, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health.

New measure of social determinants of health may improve cardiovascular health assessment
The authors of this study developed a single risk score derived from multiple social determinants of health that predicts county-level cardiovascular disease mortality.

BU study: High deductible health plans are widening racial health gaps
The growing Black Lives Matter movement has brought more attention to the myriad structures that reinforce racial inequities, in everything from policing to hiring to maternal mortality.

Electronic health information exchange improves public health disease reporting
Disease tracking is an important area of focus for health departments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

E-health resource improves men's health behaviours with or without fitness facilities
Men who regularly used a free web resource made significantly more health changes than men who did not, finds a new study from the University of British Columbia and Intensions Consulting.

Mental health outcomes among health care workers during COVID-19 pandemic in Italy
Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and insomnia among health care workers in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic are reported in this observational study.

Mental health of health care workers in china in hospitals with patients with COVID-19
This survey study of almost 1,300 health care workers in China at 34 hospitals equipped with fever clinics or wards for patients with COVID-19 reports on their mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia and distress.

Health records pin broad set of health risks on genetic premutation
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Marshfield Clinic have found that there may be a much broader health risk to carriers of the FMR1 premutation, with potentially dozens of clinical conditions that can be ascribed directly to carrying it.

Attitudes about health affect how older adults engage with negative health news
To get older adults to pay attention to important health information, preface it with the good news about their health.

Read More: Health News and Health Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.