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OCD

Managing Magical Thinking OCD

Part 2: These seven strategies can help you better cope with OCD.

Key points

  • Recognizing the role of chance in unwanted events can alleviate an inflated sense of responsibility in OCD.
  • Accepting what you can’t control and focusing your daily objectives on achievable outcomes can help you manage the urge to ritualize.
  • Thinking skeptically about cause and effect can help you gain perspective on your magical thinking and abstain from superstitious rituals.

In my recent post, "Understanding Magical Thinking OCD," I explained how this form of OCD works, develops, and intensifies over time. I described a cycle involving the following:

  1. An inflated sense of responsibility,
  2. A desire to prevent bad things from happening, and
  3. Superstitious rituals that provide a false sense of control.

I explained how the rituals alleviate fear and guilt in the short term but intensify the sense of responsibility in the long term.

Reda.G/Shutterstock
Source: Reda.G/Shutterstock

In this post, I offer seven strategies for managing these core components of magical thinking OCD (mtOCD).

But let’s begin with a generality: Magical thinking is fundamentally a form of thinking.

In mtOCD, sufferers commonly experience distressing intrusive thoughts, self-blaming thoughts, and superstitious thoughts. To overcome this malady of the mind, it's important to develop new perspectives on thinking. Here’s what’s important to know.

1. Thoughts Are Not Facts

Thoughts are mostly futile, baseless murmurings bouncing around in our skulls. Thoughts are not facts by default.

Thoughts can be factual sometimes—for instance, when you think something like 2+2=4. But most of your everyday musings are just random memory spasms of things you once heard, read, watched, or experienced. And unless you are using your conscious brain to self-inform, plan, reason, or problem-solve, your thoughts are very likely not factual.

Consider that you can think in contradictions. You can create fantasy worlds with your imagination. You can think things that you don’t believe. And, of course, you can believe things that are not true. 2+2 does not equal 5, but that does not prevent one from thinking it if they so wish. Try it.

One way to deal with distressing obsessions is to remind yourself that your thoughts are not confirmed facts. You might think about a potential catastrophe, but that doesn't make it real or likely. You might think that you must do something to prevent it, but that, too, is not objectively true.

Try to gain some distance from your worrisome and self-blaming thoughts by seeing them as just content in your mind—content that has no default claim on reality. Tell yourself: They are just thoughts. They are not facts.

2. Deflate Responsibility: Acknowledge the Role of Chance

Having some distance from your thoughts may enable you to develop a new perspective on responsibility. Recall that OCD is commonly driven by the belief that I am responsible for anything bad that happens to myself or to my loved ones. This sense of responsibility is inflated because it extends to things that you cannot control.

When you feel responsible for uncontrollable events, you are probably overlooking the role of chance. This is a natural human tendency. Our brains evolved to figure out the causes for misfortune. This is a remarkable adaptation, and it betters our lives when there’s a cause that we can identify and fix. But it backfires when there isn’t one.

When no one and nothing is to blame, it leaves a responsibility vacuum that begs to be filled. Individuals often fill the vacuum by blaming others. In mtOCD, individuals, sadly, blame themselves.

How can you deflate this sense of responsibility?

By recognizing and accepting the vacuum. Some things simply occur by chance, and it’s nobody’s fault. Encourage yourself to accept minor mishaps without laying blame. Tell yourself: I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t foresee it. Bad things happen by accident. It’s not my fault.

3. Deflate Responsibility: Acknowledge the Role of Other Forces

Of course, not all events occur entirely by chance. Many events are the outcome of multiple, complex interacting factors. When misfortune strikes, other people, agencies, and forces likely play a role.

Let’s say that someone you love lost their job during the pandemic, and you are struggling with feelings of guilt. Perhaps you are telling yourself it’s because you mistreated the person that day, or it's because of something else you thought, said, or did.

How can you ease this sense of responsibility? Start by making a list of all the factors—excluding yourself—that are involved in the event. Make sure you are thinking about involvement and not blame. A victim of an accident is involved but not responsible.

With this in mind, begin your list with the person who suffered the calamity. In this example, that’s the loved one who lost their job.

What else goes on the list? There’s the pandemic, which placed pressures on the employer; the employer that made the decision to let your loved one go; regulators who enforced COVID-19 restrictions on businesses; patrons who stopped patronizing; and other aspects of infrastructure that broke down.

Don’t expect the list to come easily. This works best when you can identify factors that are not initially obvious. When you see that there are many complicated components involved in unwanted events—likely more involved than you were—it can diminish the blame that you are placing on yourself.

4. Let Go of the Desire for Control

Having worked on deflating your sense of responsibility in two ways, your desire for control may already be a bit diminished. But, in the heat of the moment, the urge to ritualize may still overwhelm you. You can counteract this urge by trying to let it go. Here’s how:

  • Don’t judge yourself. We all desire control to varying degrees.
  • Acknowledge that the ritual is comforting but that the sense of control is just an illusion.
  • Think about how your life might be better if you took action only when you could control the outcome.
  • Set a clear mindset of acceptance and determination. I accept that life is full of things I can’t control. This urge to ritualize is strong, but I am not going to act on it.

5. Replace Rituals With Activities You Can Control

A hallmark of OCD is avoidance of feared situations and over-engagement in obsessions and rituals. The result is a neglect of what’s important in life. Maybe you’ve withdrawn socially, stopped exercising, or are avoiding other sources of personal growth and fulfillment.

Fortunately, these are things you can control by filling your day with practical, achievable objectives. You can start by setting long-term goals for reengaging in your life and a short-term action plan for achieving them. Many of my clients see tremendous benefits from simply keeping focused on their objectives every day.

Think about it. If your days are full, your mind is busy, and you feel a sense of purpose in accomplishing tasks, you are less likely to be consumed by obsessions and rituals.

Developing a sense of mastery over your life may also make it easier to accept what you can’t control.

6. Practice Being a Skeptic

A skeptic is someone who suspends belief. A skeptic reserves judgment until they are able to identify evidence for a claim. Studies show that when people are challenged to think like a skeptic, it reduces magical thinking.

A team of researchers from Sydney successfully treated two individuals with mtOCD by having them read mystical claims and reflect on why they don’t believe in them. The claims were generic—they were unrelated to the participants’ own OCD superstitions. Still, completing eight sessions of this exercise led to OCD recovery for at least three months.

Thinking skeptically is powerful.

How can you yield the power of skepticism to manage your own mtOCD? Start with an extraordinary claim you already don’t believe in. You can use a common superstition, like avoiding black cats, or an unscientific belief system like astrology, reading tea leaves, or crystal balls.

Reflect on why you don't subscribe to the magic and document each point. As always, make sure to go beyond the obvious. The more time and attention you invest in this task, the more robust your reasoning will be. Spend at least 15 minutes on this exercise and aim for three to five points.

Repeat the exercise with a different superstition or supernatural belief daily for one week. As thinking skeptically becomes more and more natural, you will find it easier to let go of superstitious compulsions.

7. Find a Therapist Who Can Help You With ERP

The ultimate strategy for managing any form of OCD is stopping rituals and safety behaviors. This is achieved through a treatment called exposure and response prevention (ERP). ERP involves going into situations that scare you (exposure) without performing rituals (response prevention). Most sufferers find ERP extremely difficult to do consistently on their own. If the strategies above are not helping you stop rituals, then you will need to go beyond the guidance of this post. Seek out the support of a local therapist who can coach you through ERP.

In the meantime, practicing these seven steps on your own, and doing so consistently, may bring you measurable relief from magical thinking OCD.

LinkedIn image: ridersuperone/Shutterstock

References

Einstein, D., Menzies, R., St Clare, T., Drobny, J., & Helgadottir, F. (2011). The treatment of magical ideation in two individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 4(1), 16–29. doi:10.1017/S1754470X10000140

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