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Four for Luck

by Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

From Canada: Hi, I’m a sixteen year old figure skater that’s very serious about my sport. Superstitious habits aren’t uncommon for athletes and I started mine about a year ago. Before getting on the ice for practice, I’d tap the boards four times and I’d think: four for good luck.

It turned into a habit and I’d catch myself unconsciously tapping out four on my leg before going out to jump. Plus, every time I’d practice my spins and jumps Id feel the need to do each of them four times because I was convinced that if I could do four in a row, I’d do them perfectly in competition.

Suddenly, after a while, what started as a superstitious habit for skating, suddenly took over and I’d tap four into a door before entering a room or I’d sit in class, always four seats from the front. Before exams, count to four while walking to get a good grade.

I had anxiety problems in the past and I was having breakdowns during my skating program but I got over that and have been skating a lot better. Now that I have the bad habit I can’t do anything without counting to four.

Obviously I realized that it was a problem and I tried to stop but it brings back the same anxious feelings I used to get. I literally can’t function without tapping or counting to four onto the wall, or my leg or something. It keeps getting worse.

What does it mean? What should I do?

Generally such habits are a way to contain anxiety. It’s a creative solution. This habit of yours started as a way to help you settle down and focus. Unfortunately the very thing you created to help you be less anxious is now making you anxious.

The counting has gone too far. Clearly, you can’t stop to tap every time you make a jump without intruding on the grace of your program. You can’t count on getting the fourth seat. If you are focused on counting while walking, you could bump into walls. You need to get back in control of the habit — and the anxiety that is behind it.

I suggest you make an appointment with a mental health counselor who specializes in treatment of anxiety disorders. The root of your problem is anxiety. Learning some new and more effective coping skills may be all you need to give up the habit — or at least to keep it in bounds. If not, the therapist will talk with you about options for managing OCD.

There are medications that are helpful as well as other anxiety-reduction techniques. I’ve taught self-hypnosis, for example, to a number of young athletes who were then able to marshal their own inner resources to relax in competitions.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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