One of the interesting and invariably frustrating parts of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is its ability to take things that are commonplace in our daily lives — like hand washing, locking doors and list making, to name a few — and twist them into maddening rituals that just never seem to satisfy OCD’s impossible demands, no matter how hard a person tries.
Have you ever knocked on wood? Made a wish then blown out birthday candles? Most, if not all, of us have engaged in some superstitious thoughts or actions such as these at some point in our lives. If you were to imagine superstitions on steroids, you would end up with Magical Thinking OCD.
Sounding familiar? Technically, magical thinking happens when you believe your thoughts, ideas, wishes or actions directly influence events in the physical world. Importantly, this belief occurs in the absence of concrete evidence demonstrating a link between you and any such events — in other words, there’s no actual evidence that anything you’ve thought actually has an impact in the real world. That’s the “magic” part of magical thinking. Ta-da!
Magical thinking can be a type of cognitive distortion, or thought error, that you give into here and there without much consequence. However, when this mental error is the foundation of all or most of your OCD, we can refer to your experience as Magical Thinking OCD.
Interestingly, the events you might be attempting to influence could be seen as two sides of the same superstitious coin: preventing “bad” outcomes and/or generating “good” outcomes. Either way, you are driven to do everything you think is in your power to control those outcomes.
The good news is that Magical Thinking OCD is just as treatable as any other form of OCD. (More on that later.)
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What do you think separates plain old superstitions from Magical Thinking OCD? If you guessed the degree of flexibility that you feel you do or do not have when it comes to participating in the superstitious ritual, you’d be correct!
For someone without OCD, if they feel the urge to knock on wood yet are nowhere near wood, they will settle for knocking on plastic or metal, or they may just say the phrase without knocking on anything at all. The superstitious ritual is something they can adjust or live without, something they trust probably isn’t going to change the outcome of things one way or another.
For someone with OCD, there is no flexibility. Knocking on wood means you find wood and knock on it. If you don’t do the ritual correctly, your OCD tells you, you risk the bad thing happening or the good thing not happening. Your words, your actions and your thoughts all must be done exactly in accordance with the rules of your Magical Thinking OCD.
There are actually three main types of magical thinking, as identified by Adrian Wells in his book Metacognitive Therapy For Anxiety & Depression:
Other common obsessions and compulsions related to magical thinking, found in this article on magical thinking, could include:
Back to the good news – so the best treatment for Magical Thinking OCD is actually the same for any type of OCD: exposure and response prevention, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy, both of which are considered evidence-based best practices as shown by a wide range of academic research.
Both parts of ERP are critical for success. Exposure is simply exposing you to your fears, also known as your triggers. Unlike OCD, where you would almost instantly give into compulsions, in the Response Prevention part you delay and resist compulsions, leading to the learning that anxiety dissipates with the passing of time.You also get the bonus learning that not doing your compulsions has no outcome on your feared consequences, because they were never connected in the first place when it comes to magical thinking!
With ERP, we take a graduated approach, which means starting off with triggers and compulsions that are considered lower-risk than others you may also hold. For instance, setting an alarm clock or the volume on the TV at an unlucky number, then working up to something scarier, like not texting your parents goodbye when you board an airplane (assuming those texts have presumably guaranteed all previous safe flights).
Remember, OCD thrives on your choice to seek short-term relief through compulsions at the expense of long-term discomfort & distress. In ERP, we flip the script, exchanging short-term discomfort for long-term relief. Thanks to research, we can assertively say that is a winning strategy, not more magical thinking! In fact, according to research published ERP is 80% effective.
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If you’ve been plagued by Magical Thinking OCD, you don’t have to keep suffering. To learn more about ERP therapy or if you are ready to get help for your OCD, please contact us at NOCD. Schedule a free 15-minute phone call to learn more.