Freaky Friday

Last Editorial Review: 5/18/2005

When a Friday falls on the 13th, it's a day of fear and anxiety for many. But it doesn't have to be.

By Carol Sorgen
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Check the calendar: Another Friday the 13th is upon us. For people like Thomas Fernsler, PhD, this is a day he relishes. For others, though, the thought of Friday the 13th is enough to send them under the covers until ... well, at least the 14th.

Triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13, is a source of fascination to Fernsler, who -- at least in the world of mathematics -- has become known as "Dr. 13."

Fernsler -- associate policy scientist in the University of Delaware's Mathematics and Science Education Resource Center -- first became intrigued about the power the number 13 has over us in 1987, when he noticed that there were three Friday the 13ths in one year. That seemed like a lot (although he has since found out that the 13th is more likely to fall on a Friday than on any other day of the week). From then, his interest in the number 13 took off.

From early times, the number 13 has intrigued -- and frightened -- us, says Fernsler. Napoleon, J. Paul Getty, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt were all triskaidekaphobes. According to Fernsler, FDR was likely our most superstitious president. When the guest list at luncheons or dinners numbered 13, he would ask his secretary to join the guests so there would be an even 14 at the table. His fear of the number 13 went beyond the dinner table as well. If he had a trip planned for the 13th, he would ask the conductor to leave at 11:50 p.m. on the 12th or wait until the early hours of the 14th, says Fernsler.

The number 13 has had a bad connotation for a very long time, says Tina Tessina, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist in Southern California and author of a number of books, including (ironically enough) The Real 13th Step: Discovering Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the 12-Step Programs, and the forthcoming It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction.

"Superstitions like this arise when people are insecure and feel that their good fortune depends on external circumstances," says Tessina. According to Tessina, the origin of this particular superstition is said to be Judas, the 13th apostle at the Last Supper, who betrayed Jesus, hence making the number 13 suspect. There are, however, a number of theories as to why both Fridays and the number 13 are associated with misfortune.

When the fear of the number 13, in whatever form, moves beyond causing you a twinge of anxiety to altering your life in significant ways, then you've moved from superstition to phobia, says Tessina.

"A phobia is an exaggerated anxiety," Tessina says. "When Friday the 13th comes around and you laugh and say, 'I'd better watch out today,' that's a superstition. But if you can't go into a building that has the number 13 in its address, then that's a phobia. That's when you need to take it seriously."

Though fear of the number 13 is not among the most common phobias (those include public speaking, specific animals, heights, and flying), says David Carbonell, PhD, it is a sufficiently common source of fear that many of us go along with it. "There's a societal consensus that we accommodate this superstition," he says, such as not having a 13th floor in hotels and office buildings. Carbonell is a clinical psychologist and director of the Anxiety Treatment Center in Peconic, N.Y.

Though he can't explain the reason this particular superstition has taken hold, Carbonell says, "The more we accommodate it, the more strength we give it."

Phobias, says Carbonell, are very common. Indeed, more than 15% of the population experiences some kind of phobia or anxiety. The good news is that of all emotional problems, phobias are perhaps the most treatable.

Milder phobias can probably be treated on your own, he says, while more disabling phobias may require the help of a professional to ease you through the steps more slowly. In general, medication is not necessary.

Carbonell's suggestions for coping with a phobia are:

  1. Develop an accepting attitude toward being afraid. "Allow yourself to feel afraid," he says. "Treat the fear as a nuisance, not as a threat."
  2. Give the fear time to subside. "Don't run away from it," Carbonell advises. "Don't bring it to an end by leaving the scene. Let it subside on its own." While that is happening, he adds, pay attention to your breathing. When we're afraid, we tend to hold our breath, or to breathe in short, shallow gasps, both of which will only heighten your anxiety.
  3. Become more comfortable in the presence of what frightens you by "deconditioning" yourself. "If you're afraid of Friday the 13th, " says Carbonell, "go stand under a ladder. Keep repeating the experience until you see that nothing happens." Expose yourself to your fear; don't avoid it.

Tessina says in addition to doing things that challenge what you're afraid of, it's important to talk soothingly to yourself or have a friend do it for you. "If you're afraid to be in a car on Friday the 13th, for example, have someone you trust go with you. Then tell yourself, or have your friend keep repeating, 'See, nothing happened.'" This "self-talk" is an important part of combating phobias, says Tessina.

"Be kind to yourself, comfort yourself, and be around people who are comforting to you," Tessina says. "It takes some effort to conquer a phobia, but it's not at all impossible."

Originally published Dec. 10, 2002.

Medically updated May 13, 2005.

SOURCES: Thomas J. Fernsler, EdD, associate policy scientist, Mathematics & Science Education Resource Center, University of Delaware • David Carbonell, PhD, clinical psychologist; and director, Anxiety Treatment Center, Peconic, N.Y. • Tina B. Tessina, PhD, LMFT, psychotherapist, Long Beach, Calif.

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