The Role of Magical Thinking in OCD

Have you ever knocked on wood to protect yourself from bad luck? If so, you have experienced magical thinking.

What is magical thinking?

Magical thinking is the belief that your thoughts or actions can have real-life consequences, without a direct logical connection between them. Magical thinking often involves the belief that thoughts or actions can cause or prevent harm, such as knocking on wood. You believe you will prevent something bad from happening, even though you know there is no rational connection between knocking on wood and any future danger.

Many superstitions are a form of magical thinking, such as curses, lucky rabbit’s feet, or unlucky numbers. Magical thinking is not inherently harmful and is actually a common part of our culture. It can be a way to lighten the mood (scream curse for a free soda), represent our beliefs (make the sign of the cross), or share our rituals with others (communal prayer).

The danger of magical thinking

Magical thinking can be a healthy coping tool to provide comfort, optimism, and a sense of control in an unpredictable world. But relying too much on magical thinking can cause emotional distress and limit your relationships and activities. This pattern of thinking can become overly rigid and extreme, leading to the feeling that arbitrary and illogical rules are taking over your life.

How is magical thinking related to OCD?

People with OCD may have intrusive thoughts that something terrible will happen to themselves or their loved ones unless they perform some specific, unrelated action (a compulsion). If they are prevented from participating in a compulsion, they may experience anxiety and a feeling of guilt for not having protected the people or things they care about.

OCD Examples of Magical Thinking

  • If I don’t wear this specific shirt, my dad will die.
  • If I mention any bad outcome, my daughter will have an accident on her flight.
  • If I think a racist word, it will affect my behavior and make me act in a racist way.
  • If I don’t text my friend an even number of times, she’ll get mugged.
  • If I have a negative thought about someone, I have cursed them and something bad will happen.
  • If I don’t lock the door 7 times, someone will come in.
  • If I have a blasphemous thought, I’m going to hell.

Common compulsions

  • Repeating words, thoughts or actions to protect yourself from something negative.
  • Avoid “bad” actions such as stepping on cracks or unfortunate elements such as numbers, colors, dates, words or sounds.
  • Engage in behaviors related to “good” numbers, colors, words, or dates, such as walking through a door a certain number of times.
  • Counter negative thoughts with positive thoughts or prayers.
  • Arrange items in a particular order that feels safe or good.
  • Engage in specific body movements, such as touching things or turning until it feels “right.”
  • Seeking reassurance about thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (i.e., excessive confession)

The Manifestation Myth and How It Harms OCD Sufferers

Demonstrating has become a tremendously popular practice. It is described as the act of thinking aspirational thoughts to make them come true. It is understandable why this practice is so attractive. We all want good things to happen to us.

It’s true that focusing your attention on positive things versus negative things can change your mood, and learning to be compassionate with yourself can benefit your mental health. However, the presence of negative thoughts by themselves cannot directly influence the physical world. We cannot simply think things exist. If that were true, horrible things like homelessness, cancer, and natural disasters wouldn’t exist.

I would love to have a personal chef. But if I think about it enough, in the right combination of numbers or at the right times of day, a chef won’t magically appear in my house. Telling people that their unrelated words, thoughts, or actions will cause positive or negative results is harmful to those who have been so tortured by intrusive thoughts.

Actions create change. If you want a promotion, a vacation, or a new car, you need to take logical, related steps to make that happen. Just thinking about your wish or performing unrelated behaviors, such as repeating a lucky phrase, is not enough to make this happen.

Challenging magical thinking

Let’s practice something together. Every time you see a green object, think that it will win you the lottery. Or, on the other hand, say out loud, “My best friend will lose his job.” Then, after doing that for a full day or week, check to see what really happened. Did you win the lottery? Is your best friend unemployed?

How compulsions reinforce magical thinking

Compulsions rob you of the ability to discover what would really happen if you faced your fear. When you engage in a compulsion and nothing bad happens, you attribute that positive outcome to your compulsion. Your compulsion also reduces your anxiety and increases your sense of control. This reinforces your need to engage in more compulsions and actually leaves you with an exaggerated sense of responsibility. The compulsive cycle tricks you into believing that it is your fault if unrelated bad things happen and that it is your responsibility to protect yourself or the people around you from harm.

How to break free

If you have OCD, work to detect the presence of magical thoughts in your life. Then, slowly try to deviate from the rigid rules that OCD requires you to follow. If your intrusive thoughts tell you that you should only wear yellow socks, try wearing white ones for a day. If you think you have to turn on the faucet 3 times, try doing it only twice.

Then pay attention to what happened. Did your fear come true? Were you able to tolerate the anxiety? Start practicing changing or even completely resisting your rituals over and over again. Notice how it makes you feel, the space it creates in your life, and how your beliefs change. If you’re struggling to implement this yourself, contact an OCD specialist who can help you spot the complicated ways magical thinking appears and help you undo its power.

This publication is brought to you in collaboration with the ADAA OCD and Related Disorders SIG.More information about GIS.

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