Magical thinking OCD involves preoccupation with repetitive, intrusive thoughts about being responsible for preventing bad things (e.g., a car accident, a terminal illness or something undefined) happening to oneself or someone else. It is normal to want to prevent bad things from happening to others. People who actually want to harm others embrace the thoughts and think about them voluntarily. Individuals with OCD often feel compelled to prevent bad things from occurring by performing an action (or thinking a thought) that is completely unrelated to the feared consequence. The individual is often aware of the irrationality of the obsession and compulsion but feel compelled to complete it anyway “just in case”.
They find it difficult to accept that they can’t be certain the bad thing won’t happen, may believe that their thoughts increase the likelihood of the bad thing happening or mean that they are a bad person for thinking it. Magical thinking OCD develops when an individual becomes consumed with obsessing over these thoughts, begins to feel anxiety, distress, doubt, confusion, or another difficult emotion because of these obsessions, and may develop some compulsive behaviours (physical or mental) to find short-term relief from these difficult emotions.
What are the symptoms?
Obsessions: The obsessions in magical thinking OCD revolve around bad things happening to oneself and others. Some examples of the intrusive thoughts associated with magical thinking OCD include: “If I don’t get out of bed with a good thought, I’ll have a bad day.”, “If I look at the clock when it hits 11:11, something bad will happen.”, and “If I don’t text my partner before their flight, their plane will crash”. The thoughts can take an infinite number of forms and are only limited by the brains capacity to imagine.
Compulsions: To manage the anxiety and distress associated with the possibility of bad things happening, people with OCD seek to reduce the amount of anxiety and distress caused by these thoughts by behaving in repetitive ways that provide short-term relief. They may find themselves attempting to prevent harm by seeking reassurance, performing certain rituals (e.g., repeating certain phrases or retracing their steps to “un-do” potential harm), thinking positive thoughts, and/or avoiding certain places or things.
Why does it occur?
Magical thinking OCD can occur when the thoughts clash with an individual’s morals or values (e.g., the wellbeing of others). This clash can cause anxiety and distress, and the individual may attempt to suppress the thoughts, causing a rebound effect where the thoughts come back more often and more intensely. Individuals with magical thinking OCD may try to find relief from the anxiety and distress by performing certain compulsions. They may find themselves stuck in a cycle of obsessing, feeling anxious or distressed, and engaging in a compulsion to relieve the anxiety or distress for the short period until the obsession returns.