Are You Ruled by Superstitions?

Flic Everett

Hats are traditional at a wedding, but not compulsory. If you’re like many other middle-aged, middle-class women, I think of myself as perfectly rational. I don’t believe a shower of rain means the weather-gods are angry, or that wearing green is unlucky. But I do find myself crossing my fingers when I’m hoping for good news, and I’d never dream of opening an umbrella indoors. I also once buried a small statue of St   Joseph in the front garden when our last house wasn’t selling because someone said it was lucky. And at least twice a week I have to get up in the night and check the back door’s really locked, even though I clearly remember turning the key.

Fears: The modern world is seeing an increasing number of people falling prey to irrational beliefs such as a fear of black cats crossing our paths.On paper, then, I’m barking mad. But a quick survey of my friends and family (not a hippy, spiritualist or rune-thrower among them) suggests I’m not the only one whose life has become a complex tapestry of irrational ritual, superstition and mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). ‘I can’t explain it,’ most of them admitted of their own bizarre rituals. ‘It just makes me feel bad if I don’t do it.’

It’s a growing phenomenon. A recent report from the Mental Health Foundation found that fear levels are rising in the UK, and more than seven million of us currently suffer anxiety problems severe enough to affect our health. A huge 77 per cent of us are convinced that post-9/11, the world has become a more frightening place. That might explain why, increasingly, we’re taking refuge in small rituals, much as the ancients did, to ward off bad luck. If we can’t control the wider world, we feel perhaps we can at least exert some power over our small corner of it.

            I know perfectly sensible people who insist that Cosmic Ordering and ‘asking the angels’ works miracles, regardless of the common sense argument that if everybody asked the angels for a parking space, we couldn’t all get one. One friend of mine, Clare, 35, says she always throws salt over her shoulder ‘to ward off the evil eye’. Clare has three children and is a company director, but as she admits: ‘It’s just something my Mum used to do, and I suppose I’m a bit scared of what will happen if I don’t do it.’

Many rituals are superstitions learnt from our mothers and grandmothers, and we feel a connection to those people when we carry them out. The problem arises when our mild superstition become an obsession. ‘A lot of children have rituals, but they usually grow out of them,’ observes anxiety specialist Dr Allan Norris, a consultant clinical psychologist from EdgbastonHospital in Birmingham.

‘Order is very important to them, but doesn’t necessarily engender problems in adulthood. We do, however, see higher than expected rates of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) from people whose parents also have the problem.’ Becoming neurotic about order, or enacting obscure rituals (compulsively showering, refusing to step on paving stones, etc.) are signs that you may have a form of OCD. Celebrities as diverse as David Beckham, Kate Nash and Florence Welch have all admitted to suffering from it.

However irrational the reasoning behind such behaviour, fear stops many people from dropping their rituals. ‘When I get the milk from the step, I have to make sure I get back inside before a car comes past,’ says Sally, 43, a company manager.’If a driver goes past and sees me, I feel very uncomfortable and I have to say: “They didn’t see me,” to myself.’ Another friend, Tessa, refuses to hang out her children’s laundry with the clothes pegs the people who previously lived in her house left behind. ‘I know I sound insane,’ she admits. ‘But I just feel as if something bad might happen to the children if I do. ‘One writer I know would be overwhelmed with panic if she put her shoes on in the wrong order (it has to be the left one first.)

Dr Cecilia d’Felice, a clinical psychologist and author of Dare To Be You says: ‘We are becoming more anxious because life is getting more stressful. Our expectations of ourselves are higher, and the pace of life is now so fast and fragmented. ‘When you’re running on empty, you’re more likely to develop control issues and look for ways to alleviate fear, which is what leads to “magical thinking” – the idea that we can somehow ensure a good outcome by performing certain rituals.’

Renowned futurologist Marian Salzman believes that our irrational battle to control the world is a response to growing global insecurity.’The world is so topsy-turvy, with terrorists trying to strike us down while we head out to dinner, we think we can protect ourselves and our loved ones with new practices that become “must-dos” to keep the truly evil things at bay,’ he says. ‘This means rituals, from night chants to ward off evil spirits to wearing only blue shoes.’ But while saluting magpies or saying ‘touch wood’ may be harmless, people suffering acute anxiety can find themselves teetering on the edge of mental illness. Severe OCD can destroy lives, as sufferers become increasingly paranoid. It’s related to disorders such as panic attacks and agoraphobia. Although it affects only 2-3 per cent of the population, on average, sufferers wait up to 11 years before seeking help.

‘OCD can worsen,’ warns Dr d’Felice. ‘Once you get into a ritualistic pattern, it sets up a neural network that the brain keeps returning to. Then you have a problem.’ In her recent memoir The Woman Who Thought Too Much, writer Joanne Limberg explains that people with OCD ‘are lawabiding, conscientious, exquisitely self-conscious and excruciatingly eager to please. We set ourselves the highest standards and are for ever disgusted with ourselves when we fail to live up to them.’ Alleviating the pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect is vital, agrees Dr d’Felice. ‘Panic attacks, phobias and OCD tend to happen when you’re burnt out. You don’t have any serotonin – the chemical that regulates happiness – left, and those feelings of “nothing left in the tank” mean you’ll try anything to feel back in control.’ Of course, rationally you may still be aware that touching all the red cars in the street is not going to affect the universe, but it’s easy to believe that you’re just protecting yourself ‘to be on the safe side’.

‘If someone has an anxious thought and does something that assuages the anxiety, then it becomes too risky not to do it,’ adds Dr Norris. ‘The trouble is, you’re not allowing yourself the chance to see that things will be OK even if you don’t do it.’ There’s a fine line between this kind of imaginary ‘protection from evil’ and fullblown phobias. While some are fairly rational (dogs can bite and wasps can sting) there are millions worldwide battling a terror of the number 13 or of buttons.

Some phobias can be assimilated easily (how many of us meet snakes on an average day?), but others, such as my own fear of flying, affect not only ourselves but our loved ones. Luckily, my family is very understanding about the fact that all our holidays take place in Cornwall or France. So should you be worried if you carry a good luck charm, or believe wearing your ‘lucky pants’ will guarantee you get the job? Referred to by psychologists as ‘magical thinking’, this is the adult version of ‘If I close my eyes, the monsters can’t see me’.

Such superstitions are on the rise – 77 per cent of people in a recent survey admitted to engaging in some form of superstitious behaviour, while 42 per cent said they were ‘very, or somewhat’ superstitious. But it may simply be an evolutionary hangover, according to a study from HarvardUniversity. Protecting ourselves against potential threats (whether a bear in the forest, or paint pot falling on us as we walk under a ladder) makes sense for our survival, says Dr Kevin Foster of Harvard. ‘Natural selection can readily favour making all kinds of associations, including many incorrect ones, in order to make sure that the really important (and therefore life- saving) associations are made,’ he points out. But there’s a giant leap between keeping a St Christopher medallion in your handbag and becoming neurotic to the point where your daily life is hampered.

‘A big issue with anxiety is a preoccupation with future events,’ says Dr d’Felice.’If you find yourself going from mild superstition to a more rigid belief system, and becoming distressed if you can’t carry out your ritual, it’s a red flag – a sign you’re overstretched, and that you need to take a step back and look after yourself better.’

Alternatively, you could just cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Courtesy: Daily Mail