Superstitions and Mental Health

Friday the 13th

Photo by Callie Gibson on Unsplash

What did Napoleon, Mark Twain, and Franklin Roosevelt have in common? That’s right, they all feared the number 13, as does horror author Stephen King. Today is Friday the 13th, and many people worldwide will avoid going about their usual business because they fear this day will bring them “bad luck.” It even has its own phobia. The fear of Friday the 13th is called friggatriskaidekaphobia (Frigga being the name of the Norse goddess for whom “Friday” is named and triskaidekaphobia meaning fear of the number thirteen.

Many people fear number 13. In Numerology, 13 is considered an evil or insignificant number that follows 12 (which is considered as “more complete”). (There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the Zodiac, and so on). Hence, as 13 exceeds 12 by 1, it is considered a sign of ‘bad luck’. Many hotels refuse to have a 13th room or 13th floor. Ships are not launched on Friday the 13th since The HMS, (a famous 18th century ship) was never heard from again after having been launched on Friday the 13th.

Who is Most Affected?

Women are more superstitious than men. When was the last time you saw an astrology column in a men’s magazine? Women may also experience more anxiety, or at least, more women than men seek help for anxiety problems. Although personality variables are not a strong factor in developing superstition, there is some evidence that if you are more anxious than the average person you’re slightly more likely to be superstitious. Intelligence seems to have little to do with whether or not we subscribe to superstitions. A superstition can become part of a campus, community or culture.

When are superstitions harmful?

People who have other mental health conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder, can be negatively impacted by superstitions. When superstitions become a strong motivator for participating in or avoiding certain activities, it’s an indication that an underlying mental health condition may be present. Superstitious behavior and rituals are generally harmless, and in many cases can be viewed as a way of controlling anxiety over the unknown. Dr. Eric Storch, professor and vice chair of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine said, “There’s a point where being superstitious can become problematic. Certain behaviors become problematic when they impair life functioning and/or result in distress.” He went on to say, "The point where superstition stops being within the realm of ‘healthy’ behavior and crosses the line into a mental health concern.” When the need to engage in a ritual becomes a compulsion that interferes with your ability to function on a daily basis, it can be harmful and lead to symptoms such as:

  • Excessive worry

  • Tension

  • Obsessive thoughts

In such cases, you may be experiencing symptoms of a more serious problem, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which requires proper diagnosis and professional treatment.

Pay Attention

The key is to pay attention to your own thinking, particularly if you experience any symptoms of anxiety — tension, excessive worry, trouble sleeping, obsessive thoughts and exhaustion, for example. If you experience these symptoms or find that you have repetitive ritualized behavior that’s out of control — superstitious or not — get professional help from a doctor or therapist.

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