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 pregnancy and the postpartum phase is a huge challenge for most moms. Today we’re going to talk about a sensitive, 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.
*It can be very helpful to talk to a mental health professional about intrusive thoughts and how to manage them. If you’re in Canada, check out our team of therapists here and book your video session.
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 often so dark and unsettling, we don’t usually 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.
But the most important thing to know is that the impact of these thoughts is not equal.
Some people brush them off, and others feel incredibly upset and disturbed by these thoughts. Sometime intrusive thoughts can cause so much disruption in your life, so it’s not quite fair to say “everyone gets this” as the impact is not the sam across the board.
So what does these statistics 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 early motherhood, intrusive thoughts can take many forms. Most frequently, they centre 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 a monster?”, “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.
Many moms fear that these thoughts mean that they’re unsafe or that they might do something harmful. But the thoughts themselves are not that powerful.
How to know when intrusive thoughts are dangerous?
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.
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 emergency and you need support right away.
If the unsettling scenarios that pop into your head are NOT what you want, and i they are frequent, upsetting, and getting in the way of you enjoying your life and being present, then it’s possible that you’re experiencing anxiety, or OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Intrusive thoughts are sometimes symptoms of underlying mental heath disorders.
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 on our team and get some support.
A Strategy to Manage Intrusive Thoughts
Here’s a quick but effective step-by-step for managing these intrusive thoughts, but keep in mind that this takes a lot of practice. It’s okay if you don’t get this right away.
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 (and not as shameful as you might have expected), 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 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 note…
If you’re struggling with the scary thoughts that enter your mind, then counselling is a really good option. All the therapists on our team are trained in perinatal mental health and know how to help with intrusive thoughts. You are not alone.
If you’d like to talk to a professional about some of these issues, you can view our team here and book a session.