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What does it mean if I’m having scary or intrusive thoughts?

Woman's eyes5

January 28, 2020

By Nicole Arzt, LMFT

If you’re a new mother, intrIf you’re a new mother, intrusive thoughts related to you or your child’s safety can be downright terrifying. When these thoughts arise, you may be confused and rightfully concerned over their presence. After all, isn’t this a magical time of bonding and unconditional love and bursts of oxytocin? Don’t these thoughts conflict with your devotion to your baby’s well-being? As it turns out, scary and intrusive thoughts are normal for new parents. Moreover, they are treatable. Here’s what you need to know.

What Are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts refer to distressing or uncomfortable thoughts that may be violent, sexual, dangerous, or otherwise inappropriate. We can experience all kinds of intrusive thoughts at different points of our lives. For instance, perhaps you’ve had the image of jumping from a moving vehicle. Maybe you’ve imagined kicking a dog, stabbing your spouse with a knife, or kissing your boss during your performance review.

Naturally, these thoughts can be uncomfortable and frustrating. If they occur frequently, you may wonder if something is wrong with you. In new mothers, intrusive postpartum thoughts typically revolve around your newborn’s safety. Some examples may include:

  • Shaking your baby
  • Throwing or dropping your baby
  • Drowning your baby
  • Smothering your baby
  • Releasing the baby from the stroller into incoming traffic
  • Hitting your baby too hard during burping

Although these thoughts can be profoundly disturbing, intrusive thoughts are merely thoughts. In most instances, they are not indicative of hidden messages, unconscious desires, or underlying mental problems.

Some research suggests that new parents are biologically wired to perceive threats to their newborns. From an evolutionary standpoint, these intrusive thoughts can be a good thing! Think about it. You experience a thought, and you’re distressed by it—this pattern indicates that you recognize that you don’t want harm to happen to your baby.

Is It Normal To Have Intrusive Thoughts?

Yes. Intrusive thoughts can happen to everyone, and research suggests that upwards of 90% of new mothers experience them. Of course, thinking about certain things is entirely different from actually doing them.

Our brains can play funny tricks on us. For example, if someone instructs you to think about anything but chocolate cake, what are you going to start imagining? The chocolate cake, of course! Research from Harvard University studied this phenomenon by permitting participants to think of anything they wanted, except a white bear. Of course, most of the participants began thinking of the white bear. In fact, they spent most of their time examining whether they were successful in their attempts to avoid thinking of the bear.

What Causes Intrusive Thoughts?

Research has not indicated a single cause for intrusive thoughts. Some of them appear to occur randomly, and they enter and exit relatively quickly. Most thoughts do not seem to have a “reason” to them. They are our natural impulses to external stimuli.

In other cases, intrusive thoughts may indicate an underlying mental health condition like depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD. For example, if a mother accidentally injures her child, she may experience distressing thoughts about doing it again. This may be a symptom related to anxiety.

Related: How to recognize the signs of postpartum anxiety

It should be noted that intrusive thoughts are different from the obsessions associated with OCD. Intrusive thoughts are just thoughts- most people don’t need to change how they act to cope with them. With OCD, however, people experience the intense desire to act on compulsions (counting, excessive hand-washing, praying) to “rid” themselves of their obsessions.

How Do You Make Intrusive Thoughts Go Away?

Intrusive thoughts are uncomfortable, so it only makes sense that we try to make them disappear. Unfortunately, even the best intentions can backfire. Wishing intrusive thoughts away tends only to make them more pervasive.That’s because when we experience anxiety over our thoughts, we tend to obsess and ruminate over them. In other words, our attempts to distract, rationalize, or suppress the intrusive thoughts only tend to give them more power!

The first step is labeling. Learn to notice and identify intrusive thoughts. Call them out when they arise. Recognize that they are neutral and automatic, and they are not your fault or indicative of you being a bad mother.

The second step is mindfulness and acceptance. Make room for the thought. Allow it to sit with you. Don’t try to engage or analyze or entertain it. You only need to permit it to have space. The more you can accept your intrusive thoughts, the more quickly they pass.

When Should You Be Concerned?

If you feel joy or relief—rather than distress—over intrusive thoughts, call 911 or head to your nearest emergency room. You may be experiencing symptoms of postpartum psychosis, which requires immediate, critical attention.

In other cases, you may find yourself becoming obsessed or immobilized by your unwanted thoughts. These worries may interfere with your parenting. For example, if you’re uncomfortable about your thoughts about drowning your baby, you may avoid giving her baths. If you’re concerned about dropping your baby, you may restrict holding him when he needs comfort.

If intrusive thoughts cause you significant distress, you may be struggling with postpartum depression or anxiety. These mental health conditions are normal, and they affect nearly 20% of new mothers. Treatment is available, and you should discuss your concerns with your doctor or mental health professional.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help you identify and reframe negative distortions into more realistic thinking.

Medication: Psychiatric medication can help with chemical rebalancing, and it can provide relief for women struggling with a variety of mental health conditions.

Support groups: New mothers may benefit from groups to discuss common parenting struggles and emotional concerns. Peer support can help normalize your fears, and it can help you establish new friendships during this transitional time.

Sources:
https://bjgp.org/content/67/661/376
https://www.postpartum.net/learn-more/anxiety-during-pregnancy-postpartum/
https://www.postpartumdepression.org/resources/statistics/
https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/unwanted-intrusive-thoughts
https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/intrusive-thoughts#causes
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/am-i-normal/201110/intrusive-thoughts-normal-or-not
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jonathan_Abramowitz/publication/263604229_Obsessional_Thoughts_in_Postpartum_Females_and_Their_Partners_Content_Severity_and_Relationship_with_Depression/links/09e415107c2fb64ee5000000/Obsessional-Thoughts-in-Postpartum-Females-and-Their-Partners-Content-Severity-and-Relationship-with-Depression.pdf

Nicole Arzt is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with nearly a decade of experience treating women's issues related to parenting and family dynamics, complex trauma, and substance use disorders. She is the proud mama of her newborn son.

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