Magical Thinking in Generalized Anxiety Disorder

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What Is Magical Thinking?

Magical thinking is the belief that your thoughts, feelings, or actions will affect someone's behavior or the outcome of a situation. Many of us 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 your lucky pencil to take a test.

Common Examples of Magical Thinking

Rituals like tossing a coin into a fountain, crossing your fingers, or making a wish before blowing out your birthday candles are types of magical thinking. Many of us perform these actions without any disruption to our day-to-day lives.

While magical thinking can be fun and harmless, it can become disruptive. Mental health conditions like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are often associated with disruptive types of magical thinking.

This article covers the definition and examples of magical thinking, what psychology says about this phenomenon, and when magical thinking may become disruptive—especially for those with mental health disorders.

Who Engages in Magical Thinking?

Magical thinking often occurs in young children under the age of 5. Young children don't yet understand that their mind is separate from the world around them. For instance, a young child believes that their wishing for something causes it to happen..

Magical thinking is common in adolescents and adults as well—some research indicates it is normative and occurs alongside rational thinking.

People often use magical thinking to feel more in control of their environment and to cope with the unknown.

Magical thinking can also occur in a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, psychosis, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders.

Magical Thinking in GAD

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive anxiety and worry that is difficult to control. To receive a GAD diagnosis, the excessive worry must also be accompanied by certain physical or cognitive symptoms like irritability, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, restlessness, muscle tension, and sleep disturbances.

For a person with GAD, magical thinking can become a coping mechanism they use to try and lessen their anxiety.

Someone with GAD might think about every potential negative outcome of a situation, and by doing so, they may believe that they are preventing the negative outcomes from happening. For example, if they are nervous about an upcoming job interview, they might picture themselves getting lost on the way, losing their phone, and making a terrible first impression on the interviewer.

By thinking about what they don't want to happen, they believe they're protecting themselves against these undesirable outcomes. With GAD, a person tends to believe that their anxiety and their anxious thoughts control the world around them.

Types of Magical Thinking

There are two types of magical thinking that are important in anxiety disorders: thought-action fusion and routines or rituals.

Thought-Action Fusion

This type of magical thinking involves believing that thoughts are the equivalent of actions and that thoughts can make actions come true.

An example of thought-action fusion is when you hear someone say, "Don't speak negative things about someone or that person will get sick," which implies that a person's thoughts alone influence the health of another person.

Some who experience thought-action fusion often feel shame, believing that having a negative thought does as much damage as if the thought were to happen in real life. If a thought pops into your head about hurting your partner, you might feel guilty because you believe you are hurting them by having the thought—even when you'd never act upon it.

Routines or Rituals

This involves performing certain actions physically or mentally to "magically" prevent or cause something to happen. For example, someone saying specific words and phrases to themselves to prevent harm coming to someone they love.

When Is Magical Thinking Harmful?

Magical thinking can be adaptive (helpful) or maladaptive (unhelpful), depending on how your thoughts affect you, your relationships, and your quality of life.

Magical thinking can promote feelings of confidence and optimism in people. Many people who engage in magical thinking don't see it as "magic" at all, but rather as their personal beliefs and theories. It's important to contextualize magical thinking in terms of a person's cultural, religious, and spiritual beliefs, too.

What one person calls magical thinking, another person calls a belief system. Sometimes, magical thinking helps us interpret the world around us in an adaptive way. If it causes significant distress or disruption in your life, however, it's advisable to reexamine your magical thinking.

One study suggests that clinicians examine the following criteria when determining if a person's magical thoughts are adaptive or maladaptive:

  • How strongly does the person hold their belief?
  • What degree of distress does this thought bring about?
  • How strong are this person's urges to take action based on their belief?

You might put pressure on yourself to "make things happen" with your thoughts or behaviors to the point that you feel personally responsible for negative events. Or, you might feel like you "messed up" when you forget to perform a ritual related to a desired outcome. Maybe you punish yourself or have a lot of negative self-talk when you don't think the "right" kinds of thoughts.

If any of the above applies to you, you may want to seek the advice of a mental healthcare professional, who can help you address unhelpful thought patterns.

Resistance to Treatment

People with GAD who have maladaptive, or unhelpful, beliefs rooted in magical thinking may not want to let go of these beliefs.

David Burns, MD, writes that although the anxiety people with GAD experience as a result of magical thinking is uncomfortable or distressing, people with GAD often still believe that this anxiety is protecting them from some greater catastrophe.

A person with GAD may be convinced that intense worrying is the key to their success or that if they don't over-plan, over-research, or generally over-worry about everything, things will fall apart.

If a person feels that letting go of their anxiety may result in bad outcomes, it's not surprising that they would be resistant to treatment for their anxiety (and by extension, their magical thinking).

Coping With Magical Thinking

If you find that your magical thinking is disruptive or distressing, there are steps you can take both on your own and with the help of a mental healthcare professional to alleviate your stress.

Journaling and Planning

First, try to identify when your magical thinking takes place. Does it happen during times of stress or worry?

You might find you rely the most on magical thinking when you are really concerned about the outcome of a situation.

Try journaling about your worries and the types of thoughts you have in response to your worries. Then, try writing down two to three practical things you can do to work toward your desired outcome.

For instance, if you have an exam coming up, write down everything you can do to prepare, such as dedicating some time to studying each night, meeting with a study group, or making flashcards. If you get a good grade, you can look back on the list of things you did to prepare and give yourself credit—realizing that it wasn't your lucky pencil or excessive worrying that brought you good fortune.

Over time, and as you become more confident about preparing yourself for stressful situations, you can learn to find comfort in being proactive and managing expectations.

Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be effective in treating generalized anxiety disorder as well as helping people reframe their thoughts and feelings so they're more helpful to their everyday lives.

A therapist can help you identify what types of magical thinking you engage in, as well as what situations trigger your magical thinking. They can even provide everyday exercises you can practice to slowly wean yourself off of using magical thinking to explain things that happen.

Medication

In some cases, a mental health professional might recommend medication to decrease your symptoms to help you better manage your thoughts and behaviors with GAD. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Celexa (citalopram) or selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such as Effexor XR (venlafaxine), are considered the first line of medication for GAD.

SSRIs function in the brain to increase levels of serotonin—a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and anxiety. SSRIs may make stress more manageable, helping you feel less reliant on magical thinking.

A Word From Verywell

Magical thinking is something that most of us do from time to time, and it is often harmless. However, if you feel that your magical thinking is interfering with your happiness or your day-to-day life, it may be helpful to seek professional advice. Ask a healthcare provider about what you can do to manage your magical thinking.

4 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.
  1. American Psychological Association. Magical thinking.

  2. Levesque R.J.R. Magical Thinking. In: Levesque R.J.R., eds. Encyclopedia of Adolescence. New York, NY: Springer; 2011. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-1695-2_443

  3. National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety disorders.

  4. Borza L. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for generalized anxietyDialogues Clin Neurosci. 2017;19(2):203-208. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2017.19.2/lborza

Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."