During pregnancy and new motherhood, intrusive thoughts can take a lot of forms. Most frequently, they center around the idea of harm coming to your baby or kids.
Let’s be frank: motherhood is hard. Adjusting during the postpartum phase is a huge challenge for most new moms. And I get that. My mission with my work is to support moms and moms-to-be with the really complicated stuff—and to actually keep it real and give you the truth, from a psychological perspective, unedited.
Because I believe in being honest with the facts, I’m talking to you about a touchy, often not discussed topic: intrusive thoughts. This is when unwanted or disturbing thoughts pop into your head. They can be unnerving and unsettling which is why I’m breaking down what these thoughts look like, why they happen, what to do about them, when to seek help and how to best preserve your mental space so that these scary thoughts become less prominent in your day-to-day life.
What are intrusive thoughts exactly?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts or images (usually about your baby or child) that pop into your mind seemingly out of nowhere. They’re often disturbing or upsetting and they don’t align with what you want for your child. They just happen. It’s like they flash into your mind out of nowhere..
Because these thoughts are so dark and unsettling, we don’t often discuss them. I mean, I get it: imagining dropping your baby while changing her diaper doesn’t exactly make for light chit-chat over coffee. As a result, you probably have NO idea how common this is. As a mental health therapist for moms, I have tons of anecdotal evidence of moms experiencing these scary thoughts. If you’re more of a concrete numbers person, consider that studies have turned up results indicating that 95 to 100% of mothers have experienced exactly this.
So what does that statistic mean then? If this kind of invasive mental imagery is this common, it means you’re not alone, you’re not crazy, you’re not losing your mind and you’re not a bad mom.
What do these thoughts often look like in postpartum?
During the postpartum season of motherhood, intrusive thoughts can take many forms. Most frequently, they center around the idea of harm coming to your baby or kids. A common theme could be that you, as the mom, is causing harm either intentionally, or by accident.
Here are the common themes that intrusive thoughts typically fall within, along with examples of each:
- Sickness related. You’re scared your baby or toddler will be exposed to harmful bacteria or that you’ll contract the coronavirus and put them in harm’s way.
- Centered around them getting hurt. You picture your child falling or getting in a car accident. Your imagination conjures up an incident where she harms herself with a utensil in the kitchen. You imagine dropping your baby and causing irreparable damage.
- Thoughts around sexual abuse or molestation. You think about what would happen if you touched your baby inappropriately or what would happen if somebody else molested your child.
- Harm that could come to you! Out of nowhere, you think about what would happen to your child if you got in a car crash or got sick with COVID and died.
What does this mean about me?
When these intrusive thoughts happen, so many women fear that it means something about them. There’s the thought, followed by internal dialogue about that thought… “What is wrong with me?”, “Am I mentally ill?”, “Could I be a danger to my kids?”
I want to remind you that there’s nothing wrong with you, although I understand that these thoughts can be incredibly distressing. Remember that these thoughts are common among most mothers, they’re just thoughts, and they don’t actually mean anything.
The key thing to keep in mind is that these imagined scenarios are things that you don’t actually want to happen. That alone means that you’re NOT a risk to your family. Many moms fear that these thoughts mean that they’re unsafe or that they might do something bad. But the thoughts themselves are not that powerful.
Ask yourself this: Are these thoughts in alignment with what I want? Would I be OK if this happened? Usually that’s a hard and solid NO. That’s why you find them so disturbing in the first place.
When should I seek help?
Let’s pause there for a moment. If you ask yourself the above questions and you feel that you would be okay with these scenarios happening, or you want then to, that’s a medical emergency and you need to reach out for help. If this is the case, call 911, a doctor or a therapist. Feeling as though you actually want to harm your child or yourself is an indicator that you need support (Postpartum Support International is a great resource to start with as well)
If the unsettling scenarios that pop into your head are NOT what you want, then that’s a basic thinking error. This doesn’t mean anything about you as a mom, and it doesn’t mean you’re dangerous or unsafe. What it could mean is that you’re experiencing anxiety.
If intrusive thinking is interrupting your day, becoming hard to manage, causing a lot of upset, or you’re having these kinds of dark thoughts all the time, reach out to a therapist and get some support. This kind of destructive imagery is unnerving, disturbing and it can be tough to live with and process. The good thing is that you absolutely can learn to shift your mind away from these thoughts. You definitely can heal from this but you shouldn’t expect to do this on your own.
OK, so how do I deal with intrusive thoughts?
I’ve written a more in-depth, comprehensive guide on intrusive thoughts linked here. For now, I’m going to walk you through a quick but effective step-by-step for managing these intrusive thoughts so you can get on with your life and enjoy your family.
Step 1: Learn About Intrusive Thoughts
The first thing you’re going to want to do is educate yourself about intrusive thoughts (which is what you’re doing right now). The more you can understand what is happening, the less alone and scared you will feel. Once you understand that your experience is quite common, you might find that your worries start to fade already.
Step 2. Avoid Making Meaning Out of Your Thoughts
The problem with intrusive thoughts is that so often we put weight and meaning into them. We think that they are significant and so we give them power. By putting energy into them (like believing them, or worrying about what they mean about us or the future), we make them worse.
If we have the thought and get scared (or think there’s something wrong with us!) it becomes harder to deal with. On the other hand, if we have the thought, take a breath, remember that it’s normal, recognize it as JUST a thought that doesn’t mean anything, you can start to take the power away from it. When we think “Yeah it’s just a thought, it doesn’t mean anything,” we take the power away. (I know it sounds easy but with practice, it gets easier…)
SO: you’re just witnessing the thought, you’re not going to add more meaning to it, you’re going to remind yourself that this is normal and that yes, you ARE a good mom despite this thought.
Step 3: Be In The Present
Next, focus your attention on being in the moment, which is essentially what mindfulness is all about. You see, you can’t be in two places at once. So if your mind is in the present moment, you can’t possibly be worrying about anything else.
So, try managing these unpleasant thoughts by turning your focus to the present moment, asking yourself: What am I seeing? What am I hearing? What am I reading?
It’s likely that the thoughts will come back, that’s normal! Just draw your attention back to the present moment. This is what mindfulness is all about and it may take some practice at the beginning. Sometimes you might need to change your scenery. Head to the backyard or a different room or pour yourself a cup of coffee and focus on that. The point is to put energy into whatever is happening right this second.
Be mindful of the content you expose yourself to.
Now, more than ever, we need to be mindful of what we allow into our lives… and when! The news can create images that are disturbing and hard to shake. If that’s the case for you, limit it. Sometimes reading about or talking about others’ intrusive thoughts can be upsetting or can plant the seeds to make this intrusive thought phenomenon worse. Scary movies are, for obvious reasons, upsetting and can give your mind content to latch on to. You don’t have to welcome all of these images into your life right now.
Be aware of what makes your mental health worse—even more so during pandemic times—and create boundaries. It’s OK to be protective of yourself especially during pregnancy and postpartum. Remind yourself that it’s absolutely OK to say “No, I don’t want to watch that horror movie tonight,” or “No, I don’t want to watch the news today.” That’s just self care.
Give yourself permission to be clear about what’s allowed in… and what isn’t.
One final resource…
Mama, I hope these tips make you feel less alone, more normal and more at ease. For continuing to improve your overall wellness and mental health, I’ve prepared a Postpartum Mental Health + Wellness Workbook. You can work through this at your own pace to make yourself feel less anxious, more grounded and more supported during this time.