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  • Writer's pictureMasha Rademakers

Magical Thinking and OCD

Magical thinking is a common feature of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that can lead to distressing thoughts and behaviors. It is the belief that merely thinking about something bad makes it more likely to happen, and that thinking about this bad thing is as immoral as doing it.


Everyone experiences moments of magical thinking. For example, thinking you will only be successful on an exam if you’re wearing your favorite sweater. Or by avoiding the neighbour’s black cat because you fear bad luck.


OCD afflicted individuals do not tolerate uncertainty well and cannot easily cast these intrusive thoughts aside. They often have intrusive thoughts that something might go wrong, and get an urge to prevent this presumed danger from happening. Therefore, they engage in neutralizing behaviors or thoughts (compulsions) to feel relief. This negative appraisal of the intrusive thought, followed by a compulsion that provided relief, fuels the OCD cycle and can increase the frequency of these terrifying intrusive thoughts.


In this blog, we will explore unhelpful thinking styles that contribute to magical thinking in OCD and provide some effective treatment options.





Magical Thinking and 5 Unhelpful Thinking Styles

Magical thinking is often accompanied by unhelpful thinking styles that fuel obsessions and compulsions. Some of the most common unhelpful thinking styles in OCD include:


1. Overestimation of Threat: an exaggerated belief about the probability and severity of harm. A person might feel anxious and reason that therefore there must be a real danger, which is called inversed reasoning. A person might also fear that there could be a slight chance that their thoughts come true, and therefore they take action in the form of compulsive behaviors that provides them with a short feeling of safety.


2. Perfectionism: the belief that things must be done in a perfect way, and that mistakes should be avoided cost what cost. Perfectionism shows itself in people with OCD in the form of concern over mistakes, doubts about their actions, feelings of incompleteness, and compulsions like checking and ordering.


3. Inflated Responsibility: a belief of a moral responsibility to prevent negative outcomes. They fear that their thoughts might cause something bad to happen and they will be responsible for causing it.


4. Over Importance of Thoughts: a belief that having a thought signifies the importance of the thought and that the thought shows an inner desire or a future prediction. This unhelpful thinking style is also called cognitive fusion, where the individual equates their thoughts with reality, instead of differentiating themselves as separate from the thoughts.


5. Over-Importance of Controlling Thoughts: a belief that controlling one’s thoughts means safety, while the loss of control of one’s thoughts means danger. This leads to an ongoing attempt to get more control over thoughts.


Treatment Options for OCD and Magical Thinking

Magical thinking can get in the way of a person’s daily life and can hinder satisfying relationships with the world, the self, and loved ones. The sticky feeling of anxiety that OCD causes seems really hard to shake off, but it is definitely possible to change our brain!


Two effective therapies for treating OCD and magical thinking are:


1. Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP): This evidence-based intervention involves gradually exposing people with OCD to their fears and obsessions, while preventing them from engaging in compulsive behavior. ERP helps people with OCD learn that their fears are based on misconceptions and that they can tolerate the discomfort of not performing their compulsions. This treatment includes the individual with OCD as well as family members impacted by OCD.


2. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): The focus of ACT is to support clients to get to a place where they can openly and mindfully experience thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, without being overly impacted by them, and help them to move their life into meaningful directions. ACT therapy is different from ERP in that it focuses less on reduction of obsessions, and more on changing the way that obsessions are experienced.

If you or someone you know is struggling with OCD, seeking the help of a mental health professional trained in these evidenced based treatments can make all the difference.


Written by Masha Rademakers, Master’s Degree Practicum Student


References

Hezel, D.M., Simpson, H.B. (2019) Exposure and response prevention for obsessive-compulsive disorder: A review and new directions. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 61(1), 85-92.

Hezel, D. M., Stewart, S.E., Riemann, B.C, McNally, R.J. (2019) Clarifying the thought-action fusion bias in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, 20, 75-84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jocrd.2017.10.004

Mantz, S.C., Abbott, M.J. (2017) The relationship between responsibility beliefs and symptoms and processes in obsessive compulsive disorder: A systematic review. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, 14, 13-26. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.JOCRD.2017.04.002

Moulding, R., Kyrios, M. (2006) Anxiety disorders and control related beliefs: The exemplar of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Clinical Psychology Review, 26(5), 573–583. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2006.01.009

Obsessive-Compulsive Cognitions Working Group (1997). Cognitive assessment of obsessive compulsive disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 35(7), 667-681. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0005-7967(97)00017-x

Obsessive Compulsive Cognitions Working Group (OCCWG). (2001). Development and initial validation of the obsessive beliefs questionnaire and the interpretation of intrusions inventory. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39(8), 987–1006. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0005-7967(00)00085-1.

Twohig, M. (n.d.) What is ACT? International OCD Foundation. Retrieved from: https://iocdf.org/expert-opinions/expert-opinion-what-is-act/

Xiong, A., Lai, X., Wu, S., Yuan, X., Tang, J., Chen, J., Liu, Y., Hu, M. (2021) Relationship between cognitive fusion, experiential avoidance, and obsessive–compulsive symptoms in patients with Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.655154


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