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Superstition, Pain and the Power of Belief

A spooky ride blog for Friday the 13th's long day in the saddle

What do you believe about Friday the 13th? Whether it was bad luck or cheeky planning, this was our longest day riding, travelling 155kms and climbing 2100 vertical metres. It was a very tough day riding out from Nowra; sunny and hot, windy and a gradual climb all the way to reach Bungendore. Today's blog comes from Karin Jones, who's a Pain Revolution rider and anaesthetist from Melbourne, who'll get you thinking about the way that superstition and rituals (like Friday the 13th!) have a role in how we retrain pain. (Karin seemed determined to keep away from the camera, but we found her tucked behind ride guide Tanya, and hidden in plain sight in her pink pelvic pain tutu disguise!)

Hand-me-down Beliefs

Did your Grandma tell you to never step on a crack in the footpath or you’d marry a ‘china-man’?

My lovely politically incorrect Gran passed down her Scottish superstitions to her grandchildren without hesitation. After marrying (non-Chinese) Charlie, she warded off bad luck in her house by never opening umbrellas inside, never allowing shoes on a table, and avoiding the colour green for curtains and other items of décor, just to name a few.

Sportspeople are well known to be superstitious. Rafa avoids the lines as he approaches his service game. Not to mention lining up his drink bottles, adjusting every piece of his clothes as he prepares to bounce that lime green ball, one, two, three, four times before each serve.

Rituals and superstitions come in when players face difficult tasks. It’s a way to calm yourself down when things start to look unpredictable.

Rafa might seem very strange, but his rituals and superstitions perhaps keep his nerves under control so he performs better. Actually his hours of training are what really make the difference but he’s giving his rituals and ‘luck’ some of the credit.

Powerful Rituals for Pain

With pain we might look for patterns in our symptoms or treatment that seem linked, little rituals we have that seem to help somehow, and develop habits or beliefs about how our body works that aren’t actually accurate. The problem with this is that when they don’t ‘work’ we can feel even more out of control, confused and maybe even doomed to ‘bad luck’.

One of my patients developed some patterns about her medication that she hoped were helpful but really were making her life miserable. She explained to me what happened every morning for her.

“I get up and I’m fine and then I know that my crampy pain will come sometime after breakfast. I take my medication and if there is enough time for the tablet to kick in, then everything with the pain will be fine. But if the pain comes a bit sooner and I haven’t taken the medicine early enough, then the pain will take over, and that can be the end of the day for me, I just can’t do anything.

When we talked it over, the pain, the medicine and her expectations about having the tablet ‘in time’ had become a ritual, a pattern of thinking and expectation that became part of the story and experience of pain.

The pain was real, but the anticipation of it, the anxiety that she felt when it seemed there wasn’t enough time for the tablet to work actually became a more important factor than what the tablet was actually doing.

And she could immediately see ‘so I guess the anticipation of the pain is actually part of the problem’.

So you see my Grandma never found out what happened when an umbrella was opened in her house, or shoes put on her table, because umbrellas stayed at the door as did shoes, and green curtains I guess. And Rafa just keeps winning, so he will continue to line up his drink bottles.


But pain is different. It’s a part of life that is complex, but not beyond explanation. The stories and myths and superstitions we can create about it can get in our way. But once we understand how it all works, we can change.

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