- Rituals, tokens, and superstitions can comfort you, boost your confidence, and help you feel in control.
- Fixed beliefs that objects have power or that you control events may be worth exploring with a therapist.
- Mental health issues related to magical thinking include schizophrenia, OCD, anxiety, and PTSD.
Magical thinking isn’t as fantastic as it sounds – in fact, you’ve probably done it without even realizing it.
Take this figure in your car console that protects you from accidents and speeding tickets. Or maybe you always eat cinnamon oatmeal for breakfast when you have an exam or presentation later in the day.
These are just a few examples of magical thinking, where you create connections in your mind between certain thoughts, actions, or behaviors to help you achieve the desired outcome, even if the two things have nothing to do with each other. the other.
These superstitions and rituals are usually no problem. But if they start to interfere with your daily life and general well-being, they could suggest an underlying mental health issue, including:
Read on for more examples of wishful thinking and how to recognize when it goes beyond mere superstition or habit.
Examples of magical thoughts
In a nutshell, magical thinking means you believe that your thoughts and actions can cause certain things to happen — or not happen, according to Dr. Jason Rose, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toledo.
In other words, you give your specific actions, beliefs, or objects more power over situations than they actually have.
According to Naomi Torres-Mackie, head of research at The Mental Health Coalition, examples of wishful thinking include:
- Adopting repeated behaviors or rituals: Examples of superstitious rituals include knocking on wood, crossing your fingers, holding your breath as you pass a cemetery, or throwing salt over your shoulder.
- Assignment of power to objects: You could, for example, wear a favorite t-shirt to help your team win, use a special pencil to help you pass a test, or get excited when you find a face-up four-leaf clover or penny, since you’re linking them to good luck. On the other hand, you can also avoid “unlucky” tokens, such as the number 13.
- Believe in the associated results: Maybe you never open an umbrella indoors because you are afraid it will bring you bad luck. You could also make a wish on a shooting star or by blowing out your birthday candles and refuse to tell anyone what you wanted – because, after all, you think that means your wish won’t come true.
Advantages and disadvantages of magical thinking
Children typically engage in magical thinking because this stage occurs naturally as part of development. The little magical thoughts that remain with you after childhood often become harmless traditions or habits.
Magical thinking may even provide some benefits, such as:
- Help you feel more in control of situations.
- Giving you the confidence to pursue your goals and succeed.
- Help you cope with stress and difficult situations.
- It will be easier for you to face your fears.
- Reassure yourself that you did everything you could to influence the situation.
But magical thinking can also have some downsides:
- You may not work as hard to achieve your desired result if you believe that one specific small action will get you the desired result.
- You might doubt your ability to win a contest or pass a test if you don’t have your coin, hat, or other lucky token.
- You may feel guilty or responsible for something bad that happened, even though you couldn’t have changed anything.
- It can create or reinforce the belief that your thoughts, words, or behaviors will irrationally cause or prevent a specific outcome, says Dr. Sam Zand, co-founder and chief medical officer of Better U.
When is magical thinking a mental health symptom?
Magical thinking that becomes rigid or interferes with reality may, in some cases, suggest an underlying mental health issue, Torres-Mackie says.
Mental health issues that may involve wishful thinking as a symptom include:
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
The main signs of OCD are obsessions, intrusive thoughts and compulsions.
OCD can cause you to perform specific rituals, or compulsions, to relieve intrusive or obsessive thoughts that are causing distress.
Here are examples of magical thoughts that can occur with OCD:
- Believing that you have to lock, unlock and relock your door a certain number of times or you will be robbed.
- Feeling like your homework answers will only be correct if you have your desk neatly organized and everything in its place before you start.
- Wash your hands three times in a row every two hours to prevent anything bad from happening to your partner.
Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that involves auditory or visual delusions, hallucinations, and other symptoms of psychosis.
Delusions and hallucinations can create a distorted reality in which you might believe that your actions have a direct impact on everything and everyone around you. In short, your symptoms may sound like wishful thinking.
For example, you may have the illusion that you have divine powers. You may then believe that saying the word “cold” will cause someone to freeze to death.
You might also experience hallucinations that validate your beliefs, such as a voice prompting you to use your power and say the word “cold.”
Anxiety often involves ongoing feelings of intense worry and fear – and wishful thinking can cause or worsen these symptoms.
For example, you might believe that you won’t be at all prepared if you don’t plan out all the worst-case scenarios before you leave the house each morning – unless you think about everything that could go wrong to prevent those bad things from happening. don’t actually happen. .
These fears and worries may suggest an anxiety disorder if they begin to interfere with your daily life. Excessive worry and stress can also contribute to other symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, restlessness, or racing heartbeat.
Living with PTSD can reinforce wishful thinking patterns.
In some cases, magical thinking can help you come to terms with trauma if you use it as a defense mechanism to avoid further trauma, Zand says. In short, it could help you feel more confident during times of stress and make sense of a terrible situation.
For example, if you associate being a passenger in a car with a horrible car accident, you might believe that you will never have an accident if you always drive.
But this defense mechanism usually only helps in the short term and can lead to feelings of anxiety, sadness, or guilt as you realize that your choices don’t have as much of an impact as you think. thought.
In reality, the situations you link often have nothing to do with each other. But after a traumatic experience, you may find it hard to accept that there was nothing you could have done. As a result, your brain can combine two independent actions to help you survive.
Essentially, you convince yourself that if you had did something different, the traumatic event would never have happened.
How to Treat Mental Health Symptoms
OCD, anxiety, and schizophrenia can serve as a disconnect between you and those who don’t understand how mental health symptoms affect how you interpret events. Living in a different reality from others, such as one heavily influenced by magical thinking, can be a hugely isolating experience, Torres-Mackie says.
A mental health professional can offer more support to address wishful thinking that affects your daily life.
Contacting a therapist might be a good next step if the wishful thinking patterns are affecting:
- Your day-to-day responsibilities, such as showing up for work or completing chores and homework on time
- Your eating, exercise and other self-care habits
- Your relationships with others
- Your interest in and enjoyment of the hobbies and activities you usually enjoy
- Your mood, thoughts, or behaviors in a negative or undesirable way
Magical thinking isn’t inherently harmful – it can actually be helpful, in some circumstances. Making sure you wear your lucky socks on a big day can help you feel less jittery, while driving with a cherished toy on your dash can help you feel more confident behind the wheel.
So feel free to keep knocking on wood and wishing for the stars if it helps you feel more at peace. Just keep in mind that talking to a therapist can be a good next step if wishful thinking starts interfering with your daily life or creating problems at school, work, or in your relationships.
A therapist can help you identify possible causes of wishful thinking rituals and identify more helpful ways to directly address these triggers.