Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - or OCD – is an anxiety disorder typically defined by a combination of intrusive thoughts (‘obsessions’) and the performance of specific rituals to resolve or ‘neutralise’ those thoughts (‘compulsions’).
Although there are many different presentations of OCD, ‘magical thinking’ is at the root of many sufferers’ compulsions. Characterised by the illogical connection between certain behaviours and the avoidance of unwanted consequences, magical thinking can trap OCD sufferers into believing that their compulsions are the only thing protecting themselves and those around them from harm. At its most severe, sufferers can believe that failing to perform a ritual would result in catastrophe.
Imagine an OCD sufferer grieving for a loved one. They might feel compelled to tap their left and right shoulders an equal number of times to prevent another relative from falling unwell. If a family pet recently went missing, a child suffering from OCD might recite a certain phrase when they leave for school, believing it will keep the pets safe.
At the root of all magical thinking is an inflated sense of responsibility that is common amongst OCD sufferers. Whilst non-sufferers understand that many situations are beyond their control, OCD sufferers feel a heightened need to eliminate harm. When an OCD sufferer experiences anxiety, magical thinking is one of the common mechanisms used to regain a sense of control.
Whilst magical thinking can often cause sufferers to feel like they are ‘crazy’ or ‘dangerous’, it is a very common symptom of OCD that can be effectively treated with therapy, medication or a combination of the two.
When Sophie* began to show symptoms of OCD during her first year of University, magical thinking caused her to perform increasingly complex rituals. “At first, I had to shake my hands dry eight times in order to protect my housemates from contamination”, Sophie explains. “But soon, eight times became
16, then 32, and eventually 120. I believed that shaking my hands more vigorously would reduce the chance of contamination, and I started suffering from wrist injuries as a result”. But the injuries were the least of her worries. “My housemates were becoming increasingly confused by my habits. They started to notice my unusual hand drying techniques, which made me feel ashamed, heightened my anxiety and ultimately made my symptoms worse. I didn’t know how to explain what was going on – no matter how I phrased it in my head, I thought I’d just sound insane to them”.
Sophie’s dilemma is not unusual. OCD sufferers tend to be aware that their magical thinking is irrational. The brain is a malleable organ, constantly adapting and learning from experiences. Each time an OCD sufferer performs a certain ritual and the harmful situation they fear does not occur, the brain learns to give meaning to that magical thought. Eventually, no matter how irrational the magical thinking may be, the mind has been trained to connect the ritual and the avoidance of harm.
Evidence has shown that talking therapies are highly effective in treating OCD. Therapy is a particularly effective approach to tackling magical thinking symptoms, as a therapist can arm you with the tools to observe, experience and accept your thoughts as a symptom of your OCD - ultimately empowering you to overcome them.
One popular method used to treat magical thinking is a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy called Exposure with Response Prevention (‘ERP’). This treatment involves exposing the patient to a ‘trigger’ in a safe, controlled environment, encouraging them to manage their anxiety instead of performing a neutralising ritual. Whilst this treatment may sound overwhelming, therapists are trained to expose patients at a pace that feels challenging but not frightening. The outcome is a gradual re-wiring of the illogical thought patterns that have developed over time.
Although magical thinking can make you feel crazy, dangerous or out of control sometimes, it is important to remember that these symptoms are both common and highly treatable. Whether it be with friends, loved ones or a professional therapist – the first step to recovery is openly acknowledging your struggles and finding the right support.
Interesting in learning more about how therapy can help? Head here to read more about how therapy works and what you can expect.
Georgina is a 20-something writer, figure skater and recovering OCD sufferer. She can usually be found with a glass of wine, an acoustic playlist and a good book.