OCD subtypes
Magical Thinking OCD

These Are the Possible Signs You’re Living With Magical Thinking OCD

4 min read
Michael Cahill
By Michael Cahill
All types of OCD include obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted and intrusive thoughts, feelings, urges and doubts, while compulsions are repetitive physical or mental actions performed in an attempt to relieve distress and anxiety

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) has many subtypes, which are determined by the theme the obsessive thoughts focus on. For instance, OCD that focuses on intimate relationships is called relationship OCD; obsessing over the thought that you might injure someone is called harm OCD; etc.

Magical Thinking OCD is yet another subtype of OCD. People who experience magical thinking often believe their thoughts or actions can directly influence things that happen in the real world — without evidence that they actually will have the intended impact. For example, a teenager who worries that her parents will contract a fatal disease and die from it might believe strongly that she has to repeatedly tap her desk in patterns of four for 40 minutes each day to prevent them from falling ill. While this person’s rational mind may acknowledge that this is a distorted belief — there’s no direct connection between doing the action and her parents’ health — the brain has been conditioned to act on it with excessive diligence. She firmly feels that to not do this action would spell disaster, and it may feel impossible to resist the urge.

A person with “just right” OCD might believe that the wording in an email he is about to send to a co-worker has to feel exactly right, in a way that he might not be able to express or define clearly, or else his children will be kidnapped and he will never see them again. From a logical viewpoint, this man is able to see that his thinking is distorted, but his brain still reinforces the behavioral compulsions associated with the thoughts.

Someone who fears she will be abandoned by her significant other, or that her trust will be betrayed by him, might skip every other step on her staircase to her apartment under the belief that doing so ensures his loyalty to her. Even though she confronts herself about this unfounded belief, she is not able to eliminate the compulsion. 

As seen from these three examples, magical thinking does not discriminate among OCD subtypes. Any subtype could lend itself to magical thinking. So what are some signs that you’re engaging in it?

  1. Your psychological conditioning fails the test of logic. In all examples above, the hypothetical individuals were able to see that the reasoning behind their compulsive rituals was illogical. From a rational standpoint, tapping on a desk does not equal guaranteed good health for parents, and that is clear to see even to the person affected by the disorder. 
  2. There is an extreme sense of urgency related to your compulsive behavior. With magical thinking, there is no room for acting on a “cool head.” Although you are able to see that your ritualistic compulsions are illogical, the fear-based sense of urgency to perform them is so great that you can’t resist. You may feel great guilt over the thought of not doing the compulsion, believing that you would be allowing something negative to happen.
  3. There have been repeated efforts to undermine the magical thinking, based on the rational mind’s ability to discern the distortions, with no success. Family members and friends may know about your compulsions and urge you to resist them. But despite your best efforts, you can’t.
  4. You’re only able to tell that it’s magical thinking when you ask yourself the question: Why am I doing it? If put out of context, these behaviors seem like ritualistic, at best superstitious acts, such as counting, tapping, repetition according to predetermined patterns and numbers or uttering a word or a phrase out of nowhere. 
  5. You keep it private or only open up to trusted confidants. Because your magical thinking doesn’t pass the test of your own rational mind, you are apprehensive about being judged if you open up to others about the thoughts that set your compulsive behavior in motion. 

One thing to note about magical thinking is that it isn’t exclusive to OCD — people with psychosis or other mental health conditions may also experience this type of thought pattern. One sign that magical thinking may be caused by OCD is if you have insight about its discrepancy with logic and rationality. Often, people who experience psychosis-related magical thinking are not able to understand that their thoughts or actions are illogical. 

Magical thinking is wired in the brain, but you can unlearn its patterns thanks to neuroplasticity. It takes 21 days for a new neural pathway to form in the brain and start to get reinforced as the new normal. Neuroplasticity is an important factor in the success of exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the gold-standard treatment for OCD. 

An important principle that plays a role in ERP as it pertains to neuroplasticity is what we refer to as inhibitory learning. By exposing themselves to triggers to their worst fears, and watching those feared outcomes not materialize, people being treated with this modality learn that the negative outcomes they were predicting or expecting are unlikely to occur and they are able to tolerate any anxiety and distress that arises. If the individual’s feared outcomes do occur, they may learn that they are more capable of handling it than expected or that the outcomes are less disastrous than previously believed.

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In ERP, a patient gets exposed to triggers to their intrusive thoughts, while being discouraged from using compulsions. That’s where neuroplasticity comes into play, creating a new normal for the individual and allowing them to break free of OCD patterns. 

At NOCD, practitioners specializing in OCD and ERP see people with various OCD themes, including those where magical thinking is present. If you are concerned you might have OCD, call now to schedule a 15 minute conversation.

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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

Licensed Therapist, MA

I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.

Madina Alam

Madina Alam

Licensed Therapist, LCMHC

When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.

Tamara Harrison

Tamara Harrison

Licensed Therapist, MA

I have personally struggled with OCD and know what it's like to feel controlled by intrusive thoughts and compulsions, and to also overcome it using the proper therapy. I’ve been a licensed therapist since 2017. I have an M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and practice Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. I know by experience how effective ERP is in treating OCD symptoms.

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