How The Pandemic Turned Me Into A Superstitious Person

Photo by Flora Maclean.
Photo for illustrative purposes only, the person shown is a model.
It all started with one magpie. I’ve never been particularly superstitious but not too long ago, on a particularly lacklustre Tuesday morning walk around Peckham Rye park in southeast London, my path was blocked by one extremely fat magpie. I glanced at its brazen, beaky face and trudged on. It was on my second loop that it occurred to me that my pockets, always bulging with household paraphernalia, felt unusually light. In a flurry of patting I realized my purse and keys were gone. 
After sprinting around the park several more times, peering under benches, accosting alarmed dog walkers, I resigned myself to the fact that they were lost or, worse, stolen. Then it dawned on me: the magpie. The bloody magpie. An age-old symbol of bad luck. Could this be some sort of feathery retribution?
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This unfortunate episode happened at the start of the third lockdown in January. In the bleak months since, my usually logical brain has curdled into a sage-addled pulp. I have always read my horoscope but, this year, I started checking it the moment I woke up, hanging on every nebulous prediction like it could be an electronic oracle of Delphi. The internet told me that Gemini was in my 12th house of wellness so I might have trouble sleeping; predictably, I had insomnia for a week after. I didn’t know what was going on but the universe was seriously fucking with me. 
My daily horoscope habit soon became a gateway to a whole host of other superstitions. Seemingly overnight, I was beholden to a cornucopia of omens and old wives' tales I vaguely remembered from episodes of Charmed. Brimming with existential dread I spent most of January surrounded by crystals, sageing myself so frequently I developed a hacking cough. I avoided the park for fear of more solitary magpie sightings, instead pounding the grey, inner-city streets, hop, skip and jumping over triple grates and hairline cracks in the pavement like a morris dancer on speed. 

Brimming with existential dread I spent most of January surrounded by crystals, sageing myself so frequently I developed a hacking cough.

My increasingly manic behaviour reached a climax a few weeks ago when, staring blankly at my laptop screen, I realized I hadn’t uttered an actual word in 24 hours. What was happening to me? I had suffered from anxiety before but it usually manifested as a tightness in my chest and a skittish kind of energy. For weeks now I had felt paralyzed, too weary to leave the house for fear of provoking the wrath of some capricious higher power. 
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At this unfortunate moment, a news notification pinged onto my phone screen: Mercury just went retrograde, here’s how to cope. This. Was. The. Last. Straw. I had survived onslaughts of magpies, weather omens, full moons, ladders and black cats, but mercury retrograde was taking the fucking biscuit. Feeling suddenly as if boiling hot water were coursing from the tips of my toes to the whites of my eyeballs, I crawled into bed, covered myself in my duvet and didn't come out until the ringing in my ears had subsided, several hours later. 
Something inside me had snapped. What had started as a cursory interest in astrology had snowballed into something toxic and unmanageable. The next morning I fought the urge to check my starry forecast and instead opened my browser and searched 'superstitions'. After minutes of scrolling it became apparent that my recent behaviour was far from random. Obsessive superstitious thought is most often caused by a lack of control or certainty, I read. AKA lockdown. I should’ve known, really. 
I am not the only one responding like this to our current restrictions. According to Majella Cogan, a psychotherapist at London’s Nightingale Hospital, even the most level-headed among us are behaving erratically. "We don’t have access to any of our usual ways of coping," Cogan tells me over the phone. "We can’t go to the gym, we can’t go to the pub with our mates, so most people are having a bit of a wobble. It’s coming out in weird ways such as in our sleep, people spontaneously crying, and this isn’t the clinical population. These are people in my circle, me too at times."
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There is a reason this third and (God willing) final lockdown is affecting many of us more acutely than the previous two and that is sheer longevity. At the time of writing this, we have been in lockdown for 359 days but it feels more like 1,000. Humans are hardwired for connectivity: data from countless studies on mammals show that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and suffer when those social bonds are severed, particularly for long periods of time. In studies, when rats are separated and deprived of stimuli they withdraw, lose weight and are more likely to contract terminal diseases than their socialized counterparts. It is the same for humans. A study by the Royal Society found that a lack of social connection can lead to depression, poor sleep quality, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life.
In March 2020, at the start of the first lockdown, a group of epidemiologists at University College London launched an ongoing weekly study observing the effects of self-isolation on the British public. Their results found that although anxiety and depression rates improved over the summer, they have declined again since December with participants responding that the latest lockdown had caused more upheaval to their lives than the first. One in five reported feeling depressed or anxious with women, young people, ethnic minorities and low-income households being disproportionately affected. 
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Even the most spontaneous of us still have a desire to be able to predict what their circumstances will present for them. When we feel like we don't have enough control, we construct ways to increase the belief we have control.

Emily Balcetis
According to Emily Balcetis, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, part of lockdown-induced anxiety can be put down to our fundamental need for control. "Even the most spontaneous of us still have a desire to be able to predict what their circumstances will present for them. When we feel like we don’t have enough control, we construct ways to increase the belief we have control, even if it does not shift our actual ability to affect outcomes. This helps to manage the anxiety that comes with feeling that things are out of order, chaotic or uncertain." One coping strategy is through a heightened dependence on rituals and superstitious thought – or magical thinking, as it’s known in psychology circles. 
During lockdown, like me, 31-year-old Emma developed a dependency on the mystical. She became unusually obsessed with numerology, particularly the number two. "In November I kept seeing ‘2’ everywhere. I had met this guy on Hinge and I felt super drawn to him. When I met up with him he was standing outside a blue door that had the number 222 on it. Then I asked his date of birth and he said it was 22nd February and in my head I was like, Oh my god, 222 again. I got a bit too obsessed with number sequences after that and convinced myself he was my soulmate before we even knew each other properly. I had to end it in January because I completely lost my mind."
Twenty-six-year-old Frankie Rechere had a similar reaction to the uncertainty of lockdown. "I wouldn’t say I’m a very superstitious person but I am definitely way more obsessed with not walking on three drains at the moment, which is quite annoying. I’ve been on a few park dates and I just feel mad having to jump round these drains but I can’t not do it." 
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Despite her recent phobia of grates, Frankie is able to stay objective about her superstitious behaviour. "There’s so much negativity at the moment that we can’t control. I guess my mind is finding a way of encouraging and securing positivity." 
In and of themselves, superstitions aren’t harmful; they can create a sense of comfort in instances of pressure or high stress. Problems arise when people rely on them instead of logic. Professor Balcetis gives the example of Israelis during the Gulf War who, under threat from Iraqi missiles, would rip up photos of Saddam Hussein as a protective ritual. "This (could bring) a sense of superstitious control," explains Balcetis, "but if they did this rather than taking shelter from the missiles then the odds (were) tipped against them. It’s about managing costs against benefits."
Lucky pants, touching wood and a fear of the number 13 are all normal, culturally rooted superstitions but for people with OCD or anxiety, they can become debilitating. Most people would see a ladder, walk around it and then disengage with it, whereas someone with OCD might start obsessing about the direction in which they walked around it and convince themselves that something bad might happen to themselves or their family. "Superstitions differ from culture to culture," Cogan explains, "but their function is to give a sense of protection, it’s a response to anxiety. For example, if [you] don't see the second magpie then magical thinking happens and your brain says some harm will befall someone and you can fill in the gaps with that." 
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So how can you stop your brain spiralling? Cogan, who specializes in cognitive behavioural therapy, says that the first thing she teaches her clients is to become more objective. "Imagine you’ve got a camera and you're zooming and zooming out until you can see the big picture. You first want to get a bit more clinical about the things going on between your ears," she says. The thinking is that once we are able to observe our behaviour from a distance, we can start to disengage emotionally and process our anxiety more rationally. 
The eventual goal is to become comfortable with uncertainty, as unpalatable as that might sound. Cogan says that many of her clients dealing with superstitious thoughts or OCD crave order and control, which ultimately perpetuates the anxiety cycle. "They say the only certainties in life are death and taxes for a reason," she laughs. "The behaviour of looking for the second magpie is keeping you stuck in a vicious cycle where you get short-term reassurance but instead the goal should be for you to reassure yourself."
As I hang up the phone these words seem to hang in the air like the smoke ripples from my now defunct sage stick. I close my eyes and mentally zoom out, reliving the last three months in my head like CCTV footage stuck on fast-forward. It makes for uncomfortable viewing but when I open my eyes I feel lighter. 
Although infection rates are falling and the government has announced a roadmap out of lockdown, the reality is that there is still very little certainty. Will the vaccine work against new variants? Will we ever go back to the office? Will social distancing actually end on 21st June? No one really knows but one thing is for sure: I won’t find the answer in the stars. 
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.

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