Scary thoughts, irrational fears, worried “what if,” thinking, or imagining disturbing scenarios that play out in your mind are one of the lesser talked about downsides of motherhood.
In the eras before motherhood, becoming a parent can seem blissful, seamless, and even like the best time of your life. Society tends to portray parenthood—and particularly motherhood—through rose-coloured glasses. And while it *is* rewarding to become a mom (don’t get me wrong!), there are some things that make the experience emotionally difficult at times.
Scary thoughts, irrational fears, worried “what if,” thinking, or imagining disturbing scenarios that play out in your mind are one of the lesser talked about downsides of motherhood. They’re also one of the hardest experiences that come with parenting a baby or small child. That’s especially the case for anxiety sufferers, those with OCD, or women who have a history of mental health issues.
These scary thoughts have a name: intrusive thoughts. They’re a symptom of anxiety and there’s a lot you can do to manage them.
What are intrusive thoughts?
In a nutshell, intrusive thoughts are the worries or irrational fears that pop into your mind and often relate to harm coming to your children. Even though they’re just thoughts, they can really negatively affect how a woman experiences motherhood.
They can leave moms constantly fearing the worst, wondering if their thoughts could be premonitions, or they may even put an excessive amount of energy into avoiding certain situations in case the hypothetical scenarios that they’re imagining become reality.
Not sure if you’re experiencing intrusive thoughts? Scary thoughts in motherhood can be thought about in four categories (although really, the mind can endlessly scary thoughts to worry about). The breakdown is as follows:
- Physical injury: Whether it’s a car crash, imagining your child falling down the stairs or slipping from a high surface, fears about physical injuries are one of the most common categories of intrusive thoughts that parents experience.
- Harm coming to you: Sometimes the irrational fear is about you! You might be enjoying an otherwise nice day with your family when suddenly your mind wanders to what would happen to your family if you took a fall or if your plane went down.
- Fears around violence or abuse: Some people will have scary thoughts that involve harming their child on purpose. Sometimes mothers will notice themselves worrying about a scenario where a trusted adult abuses their child, or even a scenario where they themselves enact harm. This is a common theme of intrusive thoughts. It’s also one of the hardest to sit with.
- Worries about serious illness: Health anxiety has always been a main pillar of worried thinking in motherhood but that has just gotten worse with the pandemic. Many parents notice that their days get interrupted with thoughts about their kids getting anything from COVID to food poisoning to a respiratory infection.
What might intrusive thoughts sound like?
Intrusive thoughts or irrational fears in parenthood typically play out in the internal dialogue you have with yourself. Below are examples of what these thoughts might sound like. If you’ve noticed your thoughts follow a similar vein of thinking, you’re likely dealing with intrusive thoughts.
- “My child is going skiing. What if she falls and breaks her leg?”
- “I’m going on a business trip. What happens if the plane crashes?”
- “My son/daughter is doing so well in sports but what if I can’t trust the coach?”
- “My baby just coughed. Could this be a symptom of something more serious?”
- “I want my child to experience the outdoors but are the rivers/ledges/ocean too much of a risk?”
Why are they so common in early motherhood?
Although our thoughts might significantly impact our day, they can be a window into what’s going on on a deeper level. Intrusive thoughts aren’t pleasant to experience, sure. But they do have an explanation.
When we understand *why* our brains jump to worst-case-scenario thinking, that context alone can put us at ease. In understanding the reasoning for this part of our thought processes, we almost take their power away because we’re no longer scared by them.
The reason why so many new or soon-to-be parents deal with unsettling thinking is because caring for a baby or young child automatically means that there are more threats to be aware of.
You’re responsible for a vulnerable being and because of that, you’re privy to all the factors that could put them in harm’s way. Your brain is wired to be on the lookout. While that may be emotionally taxing at times, it makes sense, right?
What does it mean?
Perhaps the only good news about intrusive thoughts is that they indicate absolutely nothing about a mother’s ability. So if this whole post has outlined your reality, you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that it doesn’t mean anything bad about you as a mom.
Many women worry that the presence of a disturbing thought somehow indicates that they will act it out. (For example, thinking about a child falling down the stairs might make a mom worry for a split second that she will actually push them.) That’s something that many people experience outside of parenthood too—it’s just that as a parent, these fears might feel more intense or frequent. For example, many of us have stood on a balcony at high heights and worried for a moment whether or not we’d jump. But that’s easy to shrug off knowing that we don’t actually intend to do so.
The only thing that scary thoughts indicate is anxiety, and sometimes that even takes the form of OCD (Obsessive compulsive disorder). You think about the worst case scenario because as a primary caregiver, you’re responsible for doing what you can to prevent it. We imagine a nightmare playing out (and it’s important to highlight that it *is* a nightmare and not aligned with what you’d actually *want* to happen), because our protective instincts have us regularly scanning our world for threats.
If you feel like your scary thoughts are actually in alignment with what you want, or what you think should happen, then this would be a medical emergency and reason to reach out for help asap. If you have intentions or desires of harming yourself or others, call 911 right away.
If intrusive thoughts are frequent for you and troubling your day-to-day life, then we encourage you looking at ways to manage anxiety more generally. That can look like simple things like practicing mindfulness, meditating, limiting scary TV shows or movies, journaling before bed, prioritizing sleep, therapy, getting out in nature, or cuddling a pet.
This is also an area that we can support you with in counselling, as all the therapists on our team have advanced training in things like anxiety and intrusive thoughts. We can help put your mind at ease, and also help you build skills to manage this symptom. Feel free to book a session with one of our therapists today.