Is it Superstition or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)?

When I was a child, I had a night time routine. I would count to six in my head while looking behind my bedroom door, checking my closets, and looking underneath my bed, and then I would climb in after taking three giant steps. I would never walk under ladders because I was afraid but don’t know why, and if I broke a glass, I thought it meant promises would be broken and expectations shattered for seven years. I would also knock on wood as an insurance policy against any bad luck, and in walking back and forth to school, I would never step on a crack for fear it would break my mother’s back nor would I step on a line and possibly break my mother’s spine. I believed these behaviors of mine to be linked with superstition.

Much later in life while discussing superstitious behavior with a friend, she told me that she would not allow a hat to be placed on a bed without immediately removing it. This was the first I’d heard of this and wondered, is this superstitious behavior or OCD?

The more I learn about superstition and OCD, they seem connected because of their similar thought processes that lead to the same compulsive action. Both those with superstitions and those with OCD live with an acute sense of self-perpetuated fear that drives their day-to-day reality. This type of mentality is what classifies both superstitious belief as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder, so when viewed from this perspective, it seems likely that the two are related.

According to popular belief, obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions), or behaviors that make them feel driven to do something (compulsions). Often the person carries out the behaviors to get rid of the obsessive thoughts, but this only provides temporary relief. With OCD, a person may or may not realize that the obsessions are unreasonable and may try to ignore or prevent them. However, that only increases the anxiety and distress, eventually driving a person to perform compulsive acts in an effort to ease the disturbing feelings.

As stated by the Mayo Clinic, the categories of obsessive-compulsive disorder include:

  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Constant checking
  • Fear of contamination
  • Hoarding

Some of the symptoms of OCD can mimic superstitious behavior, but apparently most of the evidence available would indicate there is no connection between the two. Wanting more control is the driving force behind most superstitions. For instance, if a young woman won her tennis match wearing her pink visor, she might want to wear it to all her matches to relieve her performance anxiety. But then what happens to her confidence if she loses that particular visor?

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a superstition is “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” Concentrating on this broad definition, some authorities have suggested that superstitions are a fundamental feature of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but in order to label this OCD, the compulsions or obsessions must significantly impact one’s life.

So is it fair to say that I have OCD when I can force myself to reject the unwanted behavior? Here is an example from a distressing incident just shy of thirty years ago:

One evening while kissing my four-year-old daughter goodnight, I whispered in her ear “Goodnight, my precious angel.” No more than a few seconds passed before the thought in my head was an alarming “Goodnight, you little devil.” Wanting to erase this disturbance from my mind, I repeated “Goodnight my precious angel.” And again the opposing sentiment, “No, she’s not. She’s a devil.” I tried once again and said, “Goodnight my precious angel” and immediately got up and walked into the hall to go to my room. It assaulted me again, “No, she’s not. She’s a devil.” I walked back into her room and tried again, but this time when I almost reached my room and had the obsessive thought, I refused to go back.

What did I think was going to happen? I thought she was going to die or we would both die unless I could control my thoughts. My magical thinking told me that if I got the words down right, I could prevent our deaths. I literally forced myself to continue toward my room while saying to myself “I am not going to do this. I am not going back in that room. If she dies, well, then she dies, but I’m going to bed because I refuse to live my life this way.” And for the last time I put my superstitious/obsessive compulsive behavior to bed, as well, and I have not returned for a visit.

Writer and copyeditor. “What doesn’t kill us gives us something new to write about” ~ J. Wright

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