Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

What Is Magical Thinking OCD?

By Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D

Oct 23, 20238 minute read

Reviewed byPatrick McGrath, PhD

Magical thinking obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an OCD subtype characterized by ongoing intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors around superstition or magical thinking to prevent negative experiences or harm to oneself or others. People with magical thinking OCD experience frequent intrusive thoughts that they will be responsible for something awful happening if they do not perform specific actions.

An individual’s underlying anxiety could be specific (e.g., If I don’t make the bed, my spouse will get into an automobile accident) or it can be undefined (e.g., If I don’t turn my phone on and off three times every day, something bad will happen to my mother). From an outside view, there is often no connection between what a person fears and the action they perform to prevent it. This is what makes it difficult to identify and treat magical thinking symptoms, without specialized training and experience. 

However, as an OCD specialist with experience treating an expansive range of OCD themes, I want to emphasize that magical thinking is no different from any other form of OCD, and it’s more common than you may think. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms in this article, you’re not alone—and there are qualified, experienced professionals who can guide you to recovery.

What is Magical Thinking?

Magical thinking involves compulsive urges and actions (I’ll define exactly what this means later) that are done to keep certain bad things from happening, though they have little or no connection to these feared outcomes from a rational perspective. 

Even if the person logically understands their fear and rituals are not connected or rational, the fear of causing oneself or another person harm is so great that they’ll engage in their compulsions just to be sure (e.g., I’ll turn my phone on and off three times just to be on the safe side. What’s the big deal?).

Magical thinking OCD compulsions may start small, but they can snowball over time. In more severe cases, magical thinking OCD can impede someone’s ability to function in their everyday life. These rituals can become incredibly time-consuming and lead a person to avoid situations, locations, or people as part of their compulsions. 

For example, a person’s magical thinking OCD can convince them the reason they failed their exam is because they didn’t sharpen 10 pencils before the test. The person might think, “See, this is exactly why I do this ritual. I’ve done it every time and I’ve never failed a test. The one time I didn’t do it, I failed. How else am I supposed to understand this?” 

Magical thinking OCD may also worsen after hearing about a tragedy. A person may feel they are responsible for a tragic event because they did not perform a specific ritual years ago. This will cause them to rely more heavily on their compulsions in an attempt to prevent more future negative events.

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Examples of magical thinking OCD obsessions

  • I need to make sure I am only thinking good thoughts when I buy this candle. Otherwise, the negativity will be infused into the candle, and it will “curse” my home.
  • If I use a pen instead of a pencil to sign this document, something bad will happen.
  • If I call my friend or answer the phone at 9:11 a.m. or p.m., something tragic will happen, and it will be my fault. 
  • If I check my bank account on a day or month that ends in an odd number, I will lose my job and won’t be able to support my family.
  • If I share the good news that happened to me with my friend, something bad will happen to her. 
  • If I tell my friend I’m in love when it’s 70 degrees out or above, she’s going to get a divorce. I have to wait until the temperature is 69 degrees or below to share the news.
  • If I don’t text my parents before I take off from a flight, the plane might crash.
  • If I have a negative thought while I am speaking to a friend, something terrible will happen to him.
  • If I happen to look at the clock when it is 3:33 p.m., I will cause everyone I spoke to that day to have a terrible day. 
  • If I have a negative thought, I need to balance it out with three positive thoughts in order for nothing bad to happen. 

Examples of magical thinking OCD compulsions

  • Counting: People with magical thinking OCD may count to a specific number in their head or repeat certain phrases or words a specific number of times to themselves as a way of protecting themselves or others from potential harm. This may look like saying, “I love my mom,” three times every time a person hears any negative mention of a mother, whether in a book, movie, or conversation. The person may worry that something bad will happen to their mother if they don’t perform this ritual.
  • Performing rituals: Some people may perform rituals during certain times of day or under specific circumstances. For example, a person may pick up and put down an item in a particular way in order to prevent bad luck. They may count to five before picking up the phone when someone calls as a way to make sure the conversation will go well. They may pray for a specific person in their life at 4:44 p.m. everyday. They may wait to text back a friend when the time ends in an even number, or touch a utensil a certain way or for a specific number of times.
  • Avoidance: Others may avoid unlucky numbers, colors, words, places and items. For example, they may avoid looking at the time between 3:15 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. so that they do not risk the chance of looking at the time when it’s 3:33 pm.
  • Seeking reassurance: A person may check in on a friend or family member to make sure nothing bad has happened in the case that they have not followed through on a ritual. This is intended to relieve the anxiety their intrusive thoughts are causing them. They may also look to trusted people in their lives to discredit their rituals. For example, they might ask, “Do you think something bad will happen if I don’t text you before my flight takes off?” Even though they may experience temporary relief from reassurance, it’s only a matter of time before their magical thinking OCD starts up again with new intrusive thoughts and rituals they feel they feel obligated to perform. 

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Treatment for Magical Thinking

The best course of treatment for magical thinking OCD, like all types of OCD, is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. The idea behind ERP is that repeated exposure to obsessive thoughts, without engaging in compulsions, is the most effective way to treat OCD. When you continually reach out for the compulsions, it only strengthens your need to engage them. On the other hand, when you prevent yourself from engaging in your compulsions, you teach yourself a new way to respond and will very likely experience a noticeable reduction in your anxiety. 

As part of ERP therapy, you will track your obsessions and compulsions and make a list of how distressing each thought is. You’ll work with your therapist to slowly put yourself into situations that bring on your obsessions. This has to be carefully planned to ensure it’s effective, and so that you’re gradually building toward your goal rather than moving too quickly and getting completely overwhelmed.

It might feel good in the short term to have your anxieties relieved, but in the long term, this isn’t doing anything to help magical thinking OCD. ERP takes a targeted approach to address your obsessions and compulsions. An ERP-trained therapist will help by reviewing which thoughts or scenarios are causing you the most anxiety and then work with you to come up with a specialized treatment plan to alleviate them through gradual, controlled exposure.

Examples of magical thinking OCD exposures

Let’s say you’re experiencing magical thinking OCD and feel that you can only reply to messages during a time that’s divisible by 10 (e.g., 4:10 p.m., 4:20 p.m., 4:30 p.m., etc.) With a therapist, you’ll work toward overcoming this compulsion with the goal of sending text messages freely at any time of day. A therapist may ask you to send a text without checking the time at all. At first, you might think, “That’s impossible. If I do that, something bad will happen to the person I am texting and it will by my fault.”

If an exposure feels too overwhelming to start with, you’ll work with the therapist to find the right intensity for you. You might start by becoming more comfortable with your intrusive thoughts. For example, a therapist might have you say, “Maybe something bad will happen if I send my text at 4:07 instead of 4:10. There’s really no way to know for sure.” This helps introduce a new idea to your mind and familiarize yourself with the uncertainty that causes the anxiety driving your compulsive behaviors.

Once you choose a plan, you’ll work with your therapist on the emotions that come up during the exposures. It will be scary at first. It may bring up many of the fears you’ve been trying to alleviate with your compulsions (e.g., what if something bad happens to the person I texted and it really is my fault?). But with practice, you’ll find the intense need to engage in your compulsion will wane. You will get to a point where your anxiety around texting subsides, and you are able to send a text message any time you like. 

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How to get help

It may be tempting for someone with magical thinking OCD to think of themselves as simply superstitious, particularly if these rituals only last a few seconds. But over time, if the obsessions and compulsions worsen, they can impose a burden on your ability to function in your everyday life.

For many people—even mental health professionals—identifying these symptoms, assessing their impact on your life, and making an accurate diagnosis of OCD can be difficult. But an experienced therapist with specialized training in OCD and ERP, like myself and my colleagues here at NOCD, can help you understand how your symptoms work, learn the ways they impact your life, and work with you to create a personalized treatment plan and manage your symptoms in the long term.

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