Magical Thinking and Mental Illness

Shared superstitions are one thing, unhealthy rituals are another

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The risks and benefits of magical thinking are culturally-dependent and often subjective. 'Magical thinking' is a term used by clinicians to refer to a wide variety of nonscientific and sometimes irrational beliefs generally based on a supposed cause-and-effect relationship between two events which manifest symptomatically in individuals with certain mental illnesses such as OCD and schizophrenia.

Not everyone who exhibits magical thinking, however, is experiencing mental illness. It is common for people to harbor personal superstitions that can be considered magical thinking and it can even be helpful to a certain degree in helping them to focus and manage their anxiety. For example, certain athletes will always eat a specific meal right before a game because they believe it will help them play better or be more likely to win.

Throughout history, people have come together around shared rituals involving some degree of what could be called magical thinking. In a religious and cultural tradition allowing for the existence of spirits and other entities, a person who makes contact with the paranormal would not be considered mentally ill by their community.

It is not inherently dangerous to participate in magical thinking, especially if one belongs to a culture that will support it. Nor is it inherently unscientific. Magical thinking stretching the boundaries of what has currently been proven possible, has always been intertwined with the process of scientific discovery.

When Magical Thinking Is a Problem

Magical thinking can become a concern when it gets in the way of normal daily functioning, as exhibited by some individuals with mental illness. Someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder may develop rituals, such as constant hand-washing, in the belief that doing this will give them an irrational amount of control over their environment. They may spend countless hours a day engaging in these behaviors and feel a high degree of anxiety or suicidal thoughts when they are not able to perform them. The delusions and disordered thinking that characterize schizophrenia can also involve unhealthy magical thinking, and are particularly harmful when unsupported within the individual's cultural context.

When it hinders daily living or becomes life-threatening, magical thinking is a cause for concern. If you or a loved one find that magical thinking is leading to homicidal or suicidal thoughts, or you think the magical thinking may be a symptom of a mental illness such as schizophrenia, seek help. Magical thinking that is worrisome should be evaluated by a mental health professional who can make further recommendations.

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