Magical thinking OCD


magical thinking ocd

In Western culture, a magical thought is believing an unrelated action caused an event. Magical thinking includes beliefs that defy the accepted cultural and scientific laws of causality. Magical thinkers may believe that their thoughts, words, or actions can cause things to happen in the world.

What is Magical thinking OCD?

Magical thinking OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) is a type of OCD where the sufferer has “magical beliefs” and as a result feels compelled to perform neutralising rituals (compulsions) to cope with the anxiety

This may manifest as superstitious behaviors, such as performing mental or physical rituals to prevent bad things from happening in the future.

For example, if an object is placed on a table in a certain way this may cause someone to be anxious that this may cause unpleasant real-life events to occur, and they may feel superstitiously compelled to engage in a coping compulsion (moving the object until it feels just right) to prevent bad things from occurring.

Magical thinking and neutralising behavior

One study found that magical thinking produces neutralising behavior in individuals in order to reduce their levels of distress. However, this was not specific to OCD, which suggests that anyone with magical thinking may benefit from therapy if it is interfering with their daily life. [1]

It’s important to note however that even if the person doesn’t meet diagnostic criteria if something is interfering with their daily life to the point where it becomes debilitating, it’s important that they seek help.

TAF (Thought Action Fusion) – a result of magical thinking

TAF (Thought Action Fusion) first emerged in the literature on OCD in the 1990s. It was divided into two components. The first focused on the belief that having an intrusive thought of something bad happening makes it more likely to happen in the real world. The second component of TAF focused on the belief that having an intrusive thought of something bad occurring was morally equivalent to carrying out actions that cause it to happen in real life (i.e TAF moral).

In 1996 Rachman and colleagues created a study on obsessive neutralising involving participants with TAF traits. [2] Participants wrote “I hope X is in a car accident,” where X is a friend or relative and then imagined it occurring.

The study group were then instructed to neutralise after completing the task whilst the control group did not respond to the negative emotions. The results showed that the anxiety and guilt that were initially raised by the task decreased after the study group neutralised and decreased over time (20-minute delay) for the control group.

In both groups the urge to neutralise decreased significantly. Therefore, since neutralising is more time and energy-consuming for an individual, carrying on with your daily tasks as usual whilst resisting the urge to neutralise is more advantageous in this sense.

Therefore, this study shows that ERP is a highly effective treatment for anxiety and guilt caused by this type of magical thinking.

CBT for Magical thinking

If individuals have harmful and false beliefs like they are cursed or they have magical powers a CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) therapist may be able to help normalise their belief system.

It’s important to note that many of the common core fears of magical thinking OCD stem from rigid and unhealthy beliefs about basing your self-worth on your actions and behaviors. If you want to read more about this please go to this article: 7 core fears of moral scrupulosity OCD.

Or if you want to find out how you can recover from morality-related magical obsessions please read this helpful article.

ERP for Magical thinking

Treatment for magical thinking OCD typically involves exposure and response prevention (ERP), which helps sufferers gradually face their fears and learn that their thoughts cannot control the world. With treatment, people with magical thinking OCD can learn to manage their OCD and live healthy, productive lives.

Why ERP is so effective for magical thinking OCD

Sometimes only doing CBT is not enough to treat OCD. This is because the therapist and patient can agree that a magical belief is distorted, but the patients may still have doubts or they may still fear the consequences if they don’t perform the neutralising ritual (compulsion).

ERP is an effective OCD treatment that allows individuals to see that they are not in danger when they don’t perform a neutralising compulsion. In the context of magical thinking OCD, they will be able to observe and realise that magical rituals can not cause real-life events. Instead of wasting time performing rituals, they can choose not to react to the obsession and instead wait for the anxiety to decrease, gradually over time after multiple exposures.

ERP eliminates the fear of “what if I don’t perform the compulsion”

Examples of magical thinking OCD and how to do CBT and exposures

Example 1

The sufferer believes that if they think about a plane crash, it will happen. This causes a lot of distress and anxiety and the person feels compelled to try and prevent or neutralise the intrusive thoughts with mental rituals such as thinking certain thoughts or physical rituals for example moving objects.

Seeing a therapist will help them change this distorted belief and doing exposures where they purposely imagine planes crashing will cause their anxiety to decrease over time.

Example 2

Someone has a “feeling” that their loved one will be in a car accident today, so they have to remind them to be careful on the road today. If they don’t remind them they will feel a lot of distress and anxiety so they feel compelled to perform this compulsion.

CBT will help them realise that they are not responsible for future road accidents. By not performing the ritual and sitting with the discomfort their anxiety will gradually decrease.

Example 3

A person believes that if they don’t switch the light switch on and off a certain number of times bad things will happen.

Again CBT will help them realise that they are not responsible for bad events. By not engaging in this coping compulsion their anxiety will reduce over time and they will realise that nothing bad has happened.

Example 4

Someone that works with numbers may feel anxious when they write down certain “unlucky numbers” and they may feel the urge to neutralise the discomfort by thinking of certain numbers. One exposure practice could be for the person to write down the unlucky number and to even visualise the imagined negative consequence.

Example 5

People that find certain words triggering and fear that thinking or writing down those words can lead to a real-world negative event occurring may find that this interferes with their life. Again the trick is to expose yourself to the trigger by for example writing it down or saying it out loud without engaging in the compulsions.

Other compulsive behaviors

Seeking reassurance

Seeking reassurance is another type of neutralising behavior where people seek to reduce the anxiety caused by the trigger. For example, a magical thinker with OCD may ask their relatives, “will I cause this bad event to happen in the future?”

Avoidance

It’s important to think of avoidance as being on the opposite side of the spectrum with respect to exposure. It is usually recommended that individuals gradually expose themselves more and more to the trigger without engaging in coping behavior so that their anxiety reduces over time. The goal is to eventually completely eliminate this avoidance behavior.

Summary

Magical thinking is often associated with OCD. This mental health condition is characterized by compulsive behaviors, such as checking and coping rituals. People with OCD often perform these behaviours in an attempt to ward off bad luck or catastrophe. While magical thinking can exacerbate OCD, it is important to note that not all magical thinkers have OCD. Exposure and response prevention is especially effective at treating OCD and magical thinking. If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD, please seek professional help from a qualified mental health professional.

References

  1. Does magical thinking produce neutralising behaviour? An experimental investigation (2007)https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17403518/#:~:text=Magical%20thinking%20is%20of%20relevance,fears%20about%20responsibility%20for%20harm.
  2. How to remain neutral: An experimental analysis of neutralization (1996) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0005796796000514

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