Magical Thinking in a Hurricane

When I was thirteen, I was struggling with severe Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, neither of which had yet been diagnosed. (I was diagnosed with Separation Anxiety Disorder in first grade, and at thirteen, I still worried excessively about my mom.) I hated school and already felt burned out by the second Tuesday of the year so, as I stepped out of my dad’s car in the morning, I wished that school would be cancelled for the day.

Wishing, even in my own head, was strictly prohibited by the torturous rules enforced by my OCD. But I was exhausted by months of acute anxiety—summer had always been difficult for me and puberty seemed to be exacerbating all my emotional struggles—and the thought slipped through. I did my simplest undoing ritual, which involved whispering “shut up shut up shut up,” and then I dragged myself to class…where a punky girl in an army surplus jacket informed me that the Pentagon had been attacked and New York City was, she thought, being bombed.

I knew I didn’t cause 9/11. I knew the attacks had to have happened hours before I even made that awful wish. I knew that it was disrespectful and narcissistic and absurd to feel responsible for something so horrific. But, in the panic of that day and the consistent anxiety of the following year, I returned again and again to that stupid careless wish.

Magical thinking, the fallacious association between unrelated events, is a significant cognitive symptom of OCD. Humans have evolved to seek out patterns: people who eat this red berry become very ill. Unfortunately, the patterns imaged by sufferers of OCD are typically very frightening. And, although magical thinking is a fallacy, intelligence doesn’t seem to offer much protection. (Imagine any of the many smart people who indulge a few superstitions.)

For healthy adults, a bit of magical thinking can be harmless or even fun. Magical thinking is ubiquitous in young children and rarely causes significant distress. However, anxious children and mentally ill individuals of all ages should avoid magical thinking. If you have an anxious child, be careful when encouraging even benign superstitions. (The weighted risks and benefits of teaching superstition is something that requires its own post.)

Crises like this hurricane can be scary for kids. If your children or students are prone to anxiety, reassure them regularly, shield them from sensationalist news, and show them that your family or school is prepared. Model calmness and optimism. And, if they recently wished for a few days off from school, make sure they know that this hurricane isn’t their fault.

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