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What is Thought-Action Fusion? Understanding Magical Thinking

Updated: Oct 4, 2022

Over the years research has shown that everyone has weird, shocking and sometimes scary thoughts at times. Some people recognise these thoughts as “brain farts” and manage not pay much attention to them, but for others their “inner meerkat” sees the thoughts as dangerous and threatening which can bring a lot of suffering to them over time. The root of this suffering is related to faulty beliefs (cognitive distortions) that we may not even realise that we have.

Thought-Action Fusion is a cognitive distortion where we believe that what is going on in our internal world directly influences the external world. Another way of referring to it is “Magical Thinking”.

There are different aspects to this thinking distortion:

· Likelihood Thought-Action Fusion; and

· Moral Thought-Action Fusion

Have you ever touched wood after saying something that you would wish to come true? Some might say it is a small, harmless superstition, and that could be true, but it could also be a clue that there is some Likelihood Thought-Action Fusion going on. This cognitive distortion occurs due to a belief that thinking about an event will make it more likely to happen and often the thought is followed by an action which is designed to influence the outcome. So by touching wood after thinking about passing your driving test reinforces the belief that it will happen.

Alternatively, and more distressingly, Likelihood Thought-Action Fusion could also apply when we have a thought that a loved one will be in an accident and our mind tells us that this will make it more likely to happen to them because we thought about it.

The second aspect is called Moral Thought-Action Fusion which occurs with a belief that thinking about something is morally equivalent to it actually happening; for example, having thoughts whilst you’re in church of jumping up and shouting obscenities at the priest and even though you’d never do it, your mind still judges you as a bad person for even having the thought about it.

Almost everyone that I have worked with on OCD tells me that they know that the imagined link between their thoughts and actions is illogical to them but yet it still feels too risky not to respond in some way. CBT can be an effective treatment and a key part of the approach is to address the thought-action fusion through setting up relevant experiments and making observations.

For example, I invite clients to intentionally think about something happening to me – crashing my car/falling down stairs – and then seeing whether it happens or not. So far it never has…otherwise I would be asking all my clients to be imaging that I win the lottery jackpot!! For someone with OCD it takes a lot of courage to do an experiment like this but it is a really good way of challenging beliefs around the link between thoughts and actions, illustrating that our thoughts aren’t dangerous in the way that our mind has been telling us that they are.

And if it is true that our thoughts aren't dangerous, then why get caught up in a battle of trying to push them away in the first place…if we can accept that they are there and refocus our attention on what is important and meaningful to us then it will allow us to really engage with our lives again. This is something that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy works on – building flexibility around thinking with acceptance of the internal experience as an alternative to trying to eliminate the distressing thoughts.

If you would like help with dealing with intrusive thoughts, or you think that you may have OCD, then please get in touch to see how I can support you.

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