Superstitions as Tool

Superstitions give a sense of control and help combat anxiety.

Posted Sep 24, 2018

The nurse stopped by the evening before my third brain surgery and asked how I was doing. I opened my mouth to respond with humor as I had through the first two surgeries, and was surprised to hear myself admitting to my anxiety.

She settled into the chair beside my bed. “Why?”

I had no answer for her, or for myself for that matter. We chatted about her life and mine, and before she departed, she handed me a brooch. She explained that it had helped her through her fears of moving across the country for this job. It had a picture of her guardian saint on it. Being Jewish, such a talisman should have meant little to me, but I clutched it like my life depended on it.

My reaction surprised me. I was a scientist, a professor of mathematics. I didn't believe in superstitions, didn't think they had any place in modern life.

I have tangles of malformed blood vessels, cavernous angiomas, scattered in my brain. Two had bled, causing life-altering symptoms including seizures, severe fatigue, excruciating headaches, vertigo, and balance issues. I underwent resection surgery, the only known treatment to prevent future bleeds. The first two brain surgeries took place within a couple of days of each other, and the third ten days later, all at Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona.

Before the first two brain surgeries, my friend, Rhonda, who had just returned from vacationing in Arizona, gave me a little lead sculpture of saguaro cactus. “The saguaro cactus is a survivor,” she said earnestly.

At the hospital, Mum handed me a bee-shaped brooch that a friend of hers had asked her to give to me. “Because it’s a miracle bees can fly,” Mum explained. “Once you’re in the clear, you’re supposed to pass it on to someone else who might need it.” She shrugged. “It can’t hurt.”

The bracelet Mum brought from my sister needed no explanation. Having grown up in the Middle East, I knew that the red thread symbolized luck, and the little hamsa charm dangling from it was for protection and good health.

Ever since my decision to undergo surgery, I'd felt more in control of my destiny and less afraid, most of the time. As I neared the surgery date, my fears dwindled, surfacing rarely and briefly. In large part due to the impact of the bleeds, the notion of an unsuccessful outcome was too abstract to register. I was undergoing the surgeries to reclaim my life, therefore all would be well. I didn't need the good luck charms that these and others foisted on me.

I appreciated their concerns and accepted their gifts graciously, but my patience started wearing thin. Their fears seemed unfounded, ridiculous even. But still, aware of the love that came with them, I fulfilled my promises to keep the items by my side in the hospital. It wouldn't hurt, and it would make them happy.

But when it came time for that third surgery—

The third was an emergency. I had a CSF (cerebral spinal fluid) leak at the site of the second brain surgery. The surgeon notified me of the upcoming surgery the day before it was to take place; no time to shore up my defenses. My sense of humor, which had sustained me since the first symptoms appeared, deserted me. I had nothing to keep the fear at bay, and terror took a firm hold on me.

When the nurse handed me her brooch, I felt better, safer, despite its foreign-to-me image of the Catholic saint. I kept the brooch by my side, and when I had to leave it behind in surgery, I felt a twinge of disquiet.

I made it through the surgery, and acute recovery, and now, many years on, long-term recovery, too. I no longer feel foolish about accepting talismans and charms, or about the need for "superstitions" to help us through hard times. As a scientist, I also take comfort in the knowledge that psychological studies have shown that superstitions may help people cope with uncertainty and reduce anxiety, giving them a sense of control. That, in turn, may improve our chances for a positive outcome in surgery.

Recently, I passed the brooch on to a friend who was about to undergo brain surgery to remove an angioma, to ensure a good outcome, to help allay her fears. And mine.

References

Wong, S. H. (2009). Does Superstition Help? A Study on the Relationships Among Superstitions, Beliefs, Personality, and Death Anxiety of University Students in Hong Kong. Hong Kong. Thesis Submitted to

the City University of Hong Kong.

Schwartz, A. (2011). On Superstitions. MentalHealth.net.