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Superstitions

As Friday 13th arrives, it brings to mind many superstitions I heard growing up that can cause bad luck….

· Opening an umbrella indoors

· Walking under a ladder

· Black cat crossing your path

· Breaking a mirror (which gives a full 7 years bad luck)

· Tipping a salt shaker over

· Wishing an actor good luck (instead, say a break a leg)

Relying on the belief that superstitions will avoid bad situations is a common belief for many people throughout life. Many sports people have to do the same ritual before every game to ensure they do nothing differently in order to repeat their performance. I am reminded of an episode of Frasier called “Head Space”. Whilst away on holiday, Niles sits in for Frasier on his radio show. Niles finds himself in conversation with Sonics basketball player, Reggie McLemore. Reggie becomes convinced that because he ruffled Niles’ hair before the game, that brought him good luck and he must continue to do this every time before a match.

Many superstitions come from the same part of our brain that makes us believe in ghosts and the monster under your bed. When our brains cannot understand or explain something, it will often make stuff up! Our mind is conditioned to avoid unanswered questions – so it’s easier for our mind to grasp for any explanation rather than accept randomness.

A study in 2010 showed that when people believe in something, such as tapping on wood to ensure nothing bad happens, it helps performance in a task.

When we start to think that by doing a certain task will ensure nothing bad will happen to us, it can be difficult to break the pattern. It can be a short-term relief from anxiety but will often lead to you needing to repeat this behaviour and can have an impact on your daily life. Continuing the behaviour can also lead to confirmation bias – where the behaviour is credited with any good outcomes (or even worse, failing to perform a behaviour is responsible for any bad outcomes).

It is very normal for people to double check they have locked the door, or make sure books are lined up neatly on the bookshelf, but when these thoughts and behaviours start to become uncontrollable and you start to feel compelled to carry out certain activities in order to keep negative and unwanted thoughts at bay, this will interfere with your daily life. At its extreme form, this behaviour is known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Most of us do not have OCD, but we need to keep our obsessions and superstitions in check. The first step is to identify your triggers. For example, if you are going out and you have to check the door is locked several times, then your trigger will be leaving the house. Just take a few moments each day to recognise these triggers and make a note of them. Doing this can help you keep track of when your obsessive behaviours will manifest.

Secondly, calmly re-assure yourself that your behaviour will not improve your outcome. If you keep testing the door multiple times, then tell yourself “I have locked the door” and really try to take your time to notice that you have locked it. Checking more times will not improve the outcome.

Learning to resist compulsions and face your fears can provoke anxiety in all of us. But to continue to repeat these rituals every day will only provide short term relief and cause the urges to repeat the action more.

Start small and identify the less intense behaviours or routines first and gradually build up to the ones that cause you the most anxiety. This is a very hard task to do, so talking to a counsellor and getting support can be helpful in your journey.

You are not alone in wanting to carry out rituals in order to protect yourself and others. Find someone you can talk to and share your experiences with. This can be a tricky journey and often the first step is the hardest.


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