Cognitive Behavioral Techniques: How To Use Research to Combat Scary Thoughts and Magical Thinking

Tuesday, June 28, 2016 by Meg   •   Filed under Treatment Techniques

When I suggest research as a treatment for anxiety, sometimes people look at me like I have three heads. I do not believe in my inherent ability to sprout extra heads, based on my extensive research on the subject. Therefore, I assume that the looks are because some individuals are not big fans of looking stuff up once they get out of school. 

It isn't just the research itself. Many people do not like the idea of exploring their deepest, darkest fears because they are afraid of what they will find. Many are worried that they will find out their scary thought is true. 

But what if it isn’t?


Knowledge Is Power: Education as a Balm For Anxiety

For those who are worried that their fear has merit: it's unlikely. Scary thoughts tend to be just that. If the thought were actually true, more people would be freaked out about it.  Researching the likelihood that something is true can reduce fear, unlike watching fear mongering on the news which is rarely based in fact. Pretty much everything on television has some element of distorted reality perception which leads us to believe all kinds of things that aren’t completely accurate.  

“Of COURSE Brian Williams is a bad ass rapper. I saw him on television…”

You can find some article out there that says...well almost anything, so using quality sources is a must.  Research journals, such as those found at the National Institute of Health or the National Institute of Mental Health, provide references that are as unbiased as they can be.  

So, let's say you have a fear that something will happen to your child at school. Research the statistics on schoolyard deaths, playground molestation or teacher abuse. Since the odds are very small of actual harm, education may be helpful in calming that fear. 

If you are worried you may have a heart attack at any time, research how many individuals of your body type and age drop dead of a sudden massive coronary without prior symptoms or conditions.  You can also make an appointment with your physician for a physical and ask questions about whether this fear is one you should be concerned about.

If I find myself terrified of sprouting extra heads, it might be in my best interest to research any and all mechanisms that might make this occur, and see how many individuals it has happened to so I can weigh my odds.

If quality research tells you the fear has merit, that is okay too. Now you have an opportunity to change the situation. If your fear of having a heart attack holds water because you are overweight and have a history of high blood pressure, you can alter the situation, until the thought no longer makes sense. If I find out that I am high risk for additional head sprouting, I might also take preventative measures by enrolling in a Hogwarts class, or making sure I don’t piss off magical gypsies. 

Education should play at least a small role in any treatment intervention, especially since fearful thoughts are rarely reality based. This also means that logic and reasoning can play a larger role in thoughts you already know to be false, but that may require a little additional reminding of this fact.

Using Logic to Combat Magical Thinking

Magical thinking sounds fun, very Harry Potter-esque. But this is not imagining that you can ride a unicorn or the belief that casting spells will turn your dog into a spider. If either of those happen, you may have a bigger issue than cognitive behavioral therapy can remedy. Instead of hallucinogenic dog alteration, magical thinking a type of distorted reality perception that is exceedingly common following deaths or other traumatic events. 

Human beings are hardwired to desire control and tend to attribute deity-like mind reading qualities to our very human selves. One of the hardest things for us to accept is that we don’t have control because it means the event can occur again and blindside us. If convince ourselves that we had some control of it this time, surely we can be prepared when it happens again. The way we do this is usually by assuming that we had the ability to sense things before they happened, which can cause great anxiety or guilt after the fact. 

For example, after a family member has a heart attack, living relatives may think that they should have known, or have thoughts along the lines of:

"If I had called grandma last night, maybe we would have known something was wrong and she would still be alive.”


“I knew what her diet was like. If I had talked to her about her health this wouldn’t have happened.”

Like grandma would have let you take away her macaroni and cheese. 

These thoughts are also very common in children who might wonder: 

"If I had been nicer to her, would grandma have lived?"  

Then there are those magical thoughts that deal with what others are thinking: 

"I should have known he would do that."

"I knew that would happen, why didn't I do something?"

...and so on. 

After the fact, people have a tendency to remember the past differently. The key word there is after. Because if you had known that Johnny was going to get into a car accident, Aaron was going to die of a heart attack or Fred was thinking about cheating on you yesterday, you would have acted then. 

...and that asshat Fred would have gotten a stern talking to instead of a fat lip.

Today, you just wish you had known. That's a big difference. 

If you find yourself engaging in these thoughts, ask yourself, “If I had known with certainty that this was going to happen, would I have acted?” You may also benefit from using logic and education to challenge whether you think people actually have the ability to accurately predict future distinct events with certainty. (Even though there is some research that seems to indicate higher than expected rates of things like hidden card identification in those who are attached to one another, no studies as of yet verify the notion of mediums or psychic ability.)

And even if you were a psychic, you wouldn’t have let Fred fuck your best friend if you had known it was going to happen. Even without doing any research on mediums, you surely know yourself better than that. 

Logic and education can override some of this magical thinking, but be aware that our desire to have control can lead us to return to this notion that we could have done something differently. For this reason, thought replacement is often used in conjunction with education to challenge magical thoughts. 

At least with a magic wand and a dog we have the power to alter our reality, and freak out our mother in laws with suddenly appearing spiders. But we can’t blame ourselves when we come up wand-less. We have google. In these cases where we lack control, this might have to be enough. (Though seriously, if you know where to get a magic wand, I’m all ears.) 


Related Posts:

Topic-Relevant Resources

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns

Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior
Useful information and tools for addressing obsessive or scary thoughts and the behaviors that go with them.

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
New techniques for mindfully altering the wiring of your own brain, leading to increased happiness.

From Panic to Power: Proven Techniques to Calm Your Anxieties, Conquer Your Fears, and Put You in Control of Your Life
Techniques for reducing anxiety and living a happier, healthier life.