Magical Thinking in Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Ethereal looking woman laying in a field

A. Tamboly / Getty Images

We all engage in magical thinking from time-to-time. Superstitions fall into the category of magical thinking, such as avoiding the 13th floor of a building or needing to have a specific object with you for good luck. Ever tossed a coin in a fountain? Made a wish before blowing out candles? Even the most simple acts involve magical thinking.


One of the early writers on the topic was Freud. He talked about a type of primary process thinking in which we feel our wishes can influence the outside world. This type of thinking tends to be greater when you feel a loss of control or face external events that feel anxiety-provoking, such as the loss of a loved one. In this way, most people use magical thinking to try and control what can't be controlled.

Magical Thinking and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

In the case of mental illness, magical thinking takes on another dimension. While it's typically thought of in cases of psychosis or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), in which a person believes that his/her thoughts or actions have the ability to control outside events, a recent study compared levels of magical thinking in people with OCD, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and a normal control group, and showed that levels of magical thinking were similar between the OCD and GAD group.

Alex Lickerman, MD defines magical thinking as "believing that one event happens as a result of another without a plausible link of causation." Or specifically, "believing in things more strongly than either evidence or experience justifies." In the case of generalized anxiety disorder, it tends to be just that—believing that your anxiety somehow controls the world around you.

Resistance to Treatment

David Burns, MD writes that although the anxiety experienced by people with GAD is painful, the belief is that it protects you from some greater catastrophe. You may be convinced that intense worrying is the key to your success or that if you don't over-plan, over-research, or generally over-worry about everything, things will fall apart.

This type of magical thinking in GAD can make it harder to get better. If you feel that letting go of your anxiety may result in bad outcomes, of course, you will be resistant to letting it go.

You may worry that if you give up your anxiety (e.g., stop being a perfectionist at work, stop being a germaphobe), something bad will happen (i.e., you'll become a slacker, make a mistake, and be let go; you'll contract an awful disease).

How to Challenge Your Magical Thinking

Ironically, the key to managing magical thinking is actually to plan ahead—something that you are already good at doing.

Think about situations that you might find yourself in that could be anxiety-provoking ahead of time. It is much easier to manage magical thinking before it starts than to disrupt your pattern once it has begun.

Devise a plan based on what a reasonable person might do in that same situation. Thinking about this ahead of time gives you a chance to see it realistically while you are not feeling anxious.

For example, if you know that you will be visiting a sick relative in the hospital and feel worried about transferring germs, reasonable steps to take might be using hand sanitizer or wearing a mask. Unreasonable steps might include bringing along cleaning supplies and washing the floors and counters.

A few other examples might include:

  • If you worry about getting a work project in by the deadline, a reasonable step might be breaking the task into manageable parts and having each part done by a certain date.
  • If you worry about the health and safety of your family, reasonable steps might include using safety equipment in your home, proper car seats, vaccinations, and regular check-ups.
  • If you worry about your financial situation, reasonable steps might include following a budget, setting aside savings, and meeting with a financial planner.

A Word From Verywell

Be sure your planning ahead is done during times of low anxiety when you are able to think rationally about reasonable steps that you can take. It might even help to enlist a friend to help you develop these plans. That person could also help to keep you aware of when your anxiety might be overwhelming your thought process and check in with you to see if you are following your plan during times of stress.

Was this page helpful?
0 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.