Extreme, painful ritual appears to have a positive effect on psychophysiological well-being

Painful rituals may improve psychological well-being, according to new research published in Current Anthropology. The findings shed new light on why ritual practices involving pain and suffering are performed by millions of people around the world.

“When I was conducting fieldwork as a graduate student of anthropology, I was intrigued by some of the pronouncements of my informants. They described their participation in an exhausting fire-walking ritual as an experience of suffering, but at the same time also as a path to healing,” said study author Dimitris Xygalatas (@Xygalatas), an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut.

“These claims are not uncommon in the anthropological literature. So, the intriguing part was that in various contexts, ritual activities that pose obvious health risks such as bodily injury, bleeding, or infection, may also be considered to have health benefits. Nonetheless, little research had been done on the topic, and my colleagues and I felt that we should investigate it.”

Xygalatas and his team were particularly interested in the kavadi attam, a ritual performed annually by millions of Tamil Hindus. During the ritual, male devotees often insert lances, hooks, skewers and other objects into their body before embarking on a pilgrimage to the temple of Lord Murugan.

For their study, the researchers examined 19 male participants who underwent body piercings during the ritual to 20 male participants from the same community who did not perform the ritual. All of the participants were recruited from 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. The 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.

Xygalatas and his colleagues found that participating in the ritual was not associated with persistent harmful effects. In fact, the ritual was linked to positive effects on psychological well-being. Those who engaged in a higher number of body piercings tended to experience the greatest improvements in perceived health and quality of life.

The researchers also found that participants of lower socio-economic status and those with more severe health conditions were more likely to engage in the painful ritual.

“We are often too quick to dismiss traditional practices as useless or even harmful, for example, in cases where they act as a distraction from medical attention. Those cases do exist. But in many contexts, these rituals can function as mechanisms of resilience, by boosting people’s sense of wellbeing and allowing them to integrate into a social support network,” Xygalatas told PsyPost.

“After all, this is why these practices have survived for millennia, and in the face of modern trends towards secularization.”

The research provides new insights into the psychology of rituals. But naturalistic studies come with some inherent limitations.

“Measuring health is complicated, and especially in the midst of massive rituals like the kavadi. Social life is complex, even messy. That’s just part of reality, and if we artificially reduced this complexity in a lab setting, it would have little relevance to phenomena like the kavadi, that are only meaningful to people in a real-life context,” Xygalatas explained.

“So necessarily, we need to deal with this complexity, but taking one step at a time and using ethnographic observations to complement our quantitative measurements. There are lots of things we don’t know yet. Health is a very broad concept. What other aspects of health might be impacted by participation, and how can we measure them?”

“Do similar secular events, such as Body Suspension, have similar effects? And what are the long-term effects of participation? I expect that as wearable technology is becoming better and more accessible, it will create new opportunities for answering these questions,” Xygalatas said.

The underlying mechanisms that link painful rituals to subsequent positive outcomes are still unclear. One possibility is that the physiological hyperarousal produced from strenuous ordeals can affect the levels of neurotransmitters such as endorphins and endocannabinoids, resulting in feelings of euphoria.

Painful rituals may also strengthen communal bonds and provide a sense of belonging. In previous work, Xygalatas and his colleagues found that participants who experienced more pain during the ritual were more likely to donate money to a community cause — even after controlling for age, religiosity, and temple attendance.

“Doing a study like this, one realizes the importance of collaborative work. This project brought together a group of seven researchers and ten research assistants. In addition, numerous members of the local community helped us in all parts of the study, from conceptualization to implementation. And each person brought different perspectives, skills, and insights into the project,” Xygalatas added.

“I strongly believe that this collaborative model is the future of social scientific research. Academic disciplines are just too narrow and specialized to deal with the complexity of human nature, so the task is better dealt with by interdisciplinary groups of researchers.”

The study, “Effects of Extreme Ritual Practices on Psychophysiological Well-Being“, was authored by Dimitris Xygalatas, Sammyh Khan, Martin Lang, Radek Kundt, Eva Kundtová-Klocová, Jan Krátký, and John Shaver.