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What is magical thinking? Is it what Harry Potter fans do when they cosplay? What children do when they make believe? Can we even print the words “magical thinking” without a lawsuit from Disney for copyright infringement?
In the big picture, the folks who put together childhood programming on PBS got it right: Magical thinking can be anything we want it to. But in the world of mental health, thinking magically has both benefits and potential dangers for our mental health, depending on how it's used.
Spirituality, luck, ghost stories and other ways of expressing a belief that there’s more to the world around us than random occurrences — this is the foundation not just of magical thinking, but of religion, spirituality, those ghost hunting shows and your aunt’s crystal collection (or yours).
We’re not here to judge what you believe — far from it. From the world’s ancient and modern religions to the Star Wars fan that believes just a little more in the Force than everyone else, your beliefs should be respected. But how you let those beliefs govern your actions, behaviors and way of seeing the world around you can either make your life incredible or terrible.
Instead, we’re here to help you understand how those beliefs may be affecting your happiness and your ability to enjoy life, for better or worse. To understand where you fall on the spectrum, you need some 101-level information. Let’s start with an introduction.
The most important thing to understand about magical thinking is that everyone thinks magically, even the people who don’t believe in magic. You do not have to be gobsmacked by a Penn and Teller bit to indulge in magical thinking. In fact, if you’ve ever so much as avoided stepping on a sidewalk crack to protect a maternal figure from a slipped disc, you’ve done it without thinking.
In a practical sense, magical thinking is our way of creating a sense of meaning in the world. It’s how we pick our “lucky” numbers, why we avoid stepping on sidewalk cracks and the difference between kids who believe in Santa and those who don’t. No two people have the same beliefs, intensity of beliefs or depth of superstitious beliefs.
Magical thinking is essentially how our brains catalog a dozen different elements of irrational thought. Those can include lucky charms, curses, superstitions, ghosts, angels and anything else that could be called a “coincidence.”
Now, opening an umbrella indoors has little impact on the stock market or your career, or even on your clumsiness when carrying eggs home from the grocery store. And studies have shown that this sort of thinking decreases in adulthood, reinforcing the idea that we “grow out” of certain types of magical thinking like old wives tales and knocking on wood.
But magical thinking can also get pretty serious. You don’t need to be a scientist to learn about undefeated champion athletes who swear by the same lucky socks, and every one of us probably knows someone who’s convinced that “the world” is “against” them.
What we’re getting at here is that magical thinking can have profound impacts on our lives, and can be both good and bad, depending on circumstances. Let’s look at both ends of the spectrum.
So first we’ll start with the good news — how magical thinking can help you.
If you’re with us so far, you’ve likely got one question on your mind: How does assuming that some higher influence is at work in daily life equal any benefits for me? Well, it depends greatly on your mindset.
A person with a positive mindset who uses the power of magical thinking can effectively create a sense that things will work out in their favor because the universe favors them.
A 2010 study looked at how superstition and lucky charms in particular affected performance in activities like golf and word games. A lucky charm increased several things for participants:
Confidence in their ability to master a task
Researchers summed this up as a question of self-efficacy — the confidence in one’s own ability to persevere or succeed. What magical thinking essentially did in this study is increase that inner confidence.
To sum it up, a degree of positive magical thinking can increase not just your confidence, but also your endurance and success rate when trying new tasks or playing games.
Let’s look at the opposite extreme from the person who feels that the universe is with them: The person who feels powerless under the weight of their magical reality.
After all, magical thinking is not all can-do attitudes and empowerment. While it may be a reassuring coping mechanism in moments of grief to say “everything happens for a reason,” keep in mind that magical thinking is arguably the genesis of paranoia, conspiracy theories and ghost stories. It’s how our minds answer unanswered questions, and fill in blanks with meaning, rather than randomness.
Here we need to talk about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental health condition characterized by intrusive and unavoidable thoughts that demand compulsive actions be taken before the stress can go away. Common examples are excessive washing, checking, hoarding, counting and other behaviors that can play out on endless loops without intervention.
Magical thinking is a substantial element of OCD behaviors for many individuals with this disorder. Studies show that magical thinking — also called magical ideation — has the most significant relationship with compulsive behaviors. Conversely, it was also found that magical thinking was associated with something called neutralizing behavior — the things that people with OCD do to make those intrusive thoughts go away (which are different but similar to compulsions).
And OCD isn’t the only mental illness in which magical thinking plays a role. Researchers have found magical ideation to be closely associated with hallucinations in people with schizophrenia.
In all of these cases, magical thinking is the sort of driving philosophy that makes irrational or non-causal behaviors (checking the locks eight times when you feel unsafe because eight is a lucky number) seem like they’re logical or otherwise comforting.
At this point, you understand how powerful magical thinking — whether misguided or self-serving — can be for individuals in various circumstances. The question, then, is whether we can conquer this power and apply it intentionally for our own mental health benefit.
The simplest answer here is that, no, we can’t do that.
We’d like to say that a magical belief in your own sense of control can go on the list of approved treatment options for a condition like generalized anxiety disorder, but that’s just not logical. You can’t always control how your brain chooses and interacts with your beliefs. In fact, there are literally entire forms of therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy designed to help people try to fix unhealthy ways of thinking, and they take a lot of practice.
You can’t adopt a belief of any kind disingenuously. People who believe in lucky charms didn’t just decide to believe in them one afternoon — they had a formative moment where a connection (an illogical one) was made in their minds.
More importantly, we’re of the opinion that overpowering magical thinking can cause more harm than good, especially in people with mental illness. People with conditions from depression and anxiety to OCD and schizophrenia can have intrusive thoughts, and can often struggle to deal with intrusive thoughts in healthy ways. And when a mind is unhappy, it’s not exactly having positive intrusive thoughts, which means it’s even more important — and more difficult — to deal with them properly.
If obsessive-compulsive disorder is what’s causing you mental health problems, you might want to focus on proven treatment and management options like therapy for OCD. Experts generally point to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) paired with an antidepressant medication like a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) as some of the most effective treatments.
As for other mental health issues, we have comprehensive resources to help you learn about proven, scientifically-validated ways to treat anxiety disorders, depressive disorders and other mental health issues.
Magical thinking is probably best left in the realm of, well, magic — nice to imagine, not to employ.
In the wizarding and Jedi worlds of fantasy, magic can be used for good or evil, depending on the person wielding the power. Well, it’s frankly the same when it comes to the power of magical thinking. The wielder, in this case, is your brain. If your brain is in fine mental health, it may use those powers to see pathways to success and drive you toward your goals.
On the other hand, if your mental health isn’t doing so well, magical thinking has the power to do an awful lot of destruction to your quality of life. And this is why mental healthcare is so important.
So if you came here looking for a way to apply some magical thinking, put it toward your can-do attitude toward seeking support. We can make it easy for you, too. Our mental health resources and online therapy platform provide many ways to get tailored, proven support for the management of your mental health from a mental health professional.
Cross your fingers, knock on wood, avoid breaking mirrors and reach out today.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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