When superstitions become a mental health concern

The year’s second full moon rises Feb. 16, setting off a plethora of full moon myths and superstitions.

Earth's moon in a nearly-day sky, hanging above a line of clouds.A full moon can bring good luck if you’re moving into a new house or if it occurs on a Monday, according to the Farmer’s Almanac.

Moon myths aren’t all positive – it’s considered unlucky to sleep in the moonlight or give birth under the moon. If a full moon falls on a Sunday, just throw the rest of the week away.

In 2019, only 9% of Americans claimed to be “very superstitious,” according to Statista, a company that specializes in market and consumer data. But 20% surveyed said they were “somewhat superstitious,” indicating they think about superstitions occasionally.

Superstitions aren’t unhealthy and often exist because of a long-forgotten belief that was normative for the time, said Dr. Eric Storch, professor and vice chair of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine. But there’s a point where being superstitious can become problematic.

Superstitious people often experience a neurotic paradox, which is when they engage in a certain behavior because they don’t want a certain outcome, and – after doing the behavior – it doesn’t happen. For instance, if a person walks around a ladder instead of underneath it and nothing bad happens to them, they feel as though they avoided “bad luck” or misfortune.

“You think it works, so the behavior persists,” Storch said. “That’s one of the reasons you see these behaviors continue for a lot of people. They see a truth to it because the feared outcomes didn’t take place.”

One of Storch’s specializations is obsessive compulsive disorder. He said some take superstitions, or “magical thinking,” too far. He said it’s important to know when thoughts and beliefs start impacting your life negatively.

Storch said certain behaviors become problematic when they impair life functioning and/or result in distress. He said that’s the point where superstition stops being within the realm of ‘healthy’ behavior and crosses the line into a mental health concern.

In an example of when superstition becomes a problem, he recounted a person who ritualized for 15 minutes a day.

“They thought it’s not a big deal, but on the other hand, that’s two hours a week, eight hours a month, a day every quarter,” Storch said. “That’s a four-day trip somewhere awesome.”

It often becomes a problem when the behavior is inflexible, he said. When it’s inflexible, you can’t move on until you do something a certain way and that can become debilitating.

Storch does not want to mistake culture for a mental health problem; superstitions and rituals exist in many cultures to a healthy degree, and it’s not impactful on daily life.

“If they don’t impact your life and are not causing distress, it is probably not something to worry about,” he said.

If you feel like daily rituals are becoming a problem for you, talk to your primary care physician first. They may refer you to a psychologist if necessary.

By Julie Garcia

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