Updated: Jan 21
Let's talk about intrusive thoughts! These are unwanted thoughts that pop into our head unexpectedly and can feel very scary or weird. People have intrusive thoughts all the time, we just never really talk about it.
Content Warning: Examples of various type of intrusive thoughts included in post
What are intrusive thoughts?
In the Perinatal period we can have intrusive thoughts about ourselves, our pregnancy or baby and many other things. Intrusive thoughts can really make us feel uncomfortable and like something is wrong with us, because so many people don’t know that this is quite normal. Karen Kleiman (2021) shares some data in her book Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts: Breaking the Cycle of Unwanted Thoughts in Parenthood, from a study that concluded 91% of new mothers experienced obsessive thoughts. And obsessive thoughts are only one type of intrusive thought and so the rest of the group probably experienced other types of intrusive thoughts. What does this mean? It is very common and in fact typical to experience intrusive thoughts. If we are experiencing high anxiety in the Perinatal period, then chances are we are going to experience more intrusive thoughts.
There are different types of intrusive thoughts that Karen Kleiman (2021) covers in her book and I’m including some examples. Please scroll ahead if you do not want to read these examples.
· Thoughts about accidental harm; these can include thoughts like dropping the baby down the stairs or them slipping out of your hands in the bath
· Thoughts can be about intentional harm, such as you purposely hurting your baby to stop them from crying or because you’re extremely tired
· Thoughts that are sexual in nature; these can include thoughts of touching your child in a sexual way
· Thoughts can be images or like “videos” playing in your mind
· Thoughts about yourself, these thoughts can also be suicidal ideation; these can sound like “my partner or family would be better off without me”, or “I’m not a good parent”
· Thoughts can be about others: “I don’t trust other people to take care of my baby”
· Thoughts about the future: “what if they grow up to be a bad person”?
· Thoughts about the childbirth and what happened – “that was scary, or didn’t go how I planned”, these can be flashbacks if you’ve experienced a traumatic birth and can feel really distressing
Intrusive thoughts can also present or feel like rumination (thinking something negative over and over), excessive worry, memories, catastrophic misinterpretations of bodily sensations (“my heart is racing, I must be having a heart attack”) and obsessive thoughts.
What does this look like in real-life? My Take
I like to explain the process of intrusive thoughts and anxiety around baby’s safety this way:
Thought – We have an intrusive thought about dropping the baby down the stairs.
Feeling – I feel nervous to walk down the stairs with the baby.
Behaviour – I hold onto the baby tighter, make sure I’m carrying them securely and I walk slowly and carefully down the stairs.
Result – I get down the stairs with baby safely.
Anxiety and intrusive thoughts about baby’s safety (i.e. the example above) are trying to alert us to danger and as a consequence we become more alert to baby or the dangerous situation that could happen and so the intrusive thought has done it’s job. When usually happens is that we create a story or meaning about the intrusive thoughts “this must mean there’s something wrong with me” and that causes us much distress.
Parents who identify as women, in particular feel shame or guilt when they have intrusive thoughts and oftentimes are scared to share with anyone that they are experiencing them. When we have these types of thoughts we can think “I must be the only one who thinks like this, I must be a bad parent if I think of hurting my kid”. Most people, if not everyone, have intrusive thoughts at different times of our lives. We cannot control all of the thoughts that pop into our head. I personally experienced intrusive thoughts about dropping my baby down the stairs. And so, you are definitely not the only parent to experience these distressing thoughts. As mentioned earlier, in one study 91% of new mothers and 88% of new fathers (Kleiman, 2021) experienced intrusive thoughts, and so we can conclude that it is actually common!
In day-to-day life having intrusive thoughts can feel very scary and can knock us out of our window of tolerance, can make us feel like we are struggling to cope. If these types of thoughts make us feel scared enough then some people will start engaging in behaviours to soothe the thoughts and the nervous system. Some people might start checking the baby’s breathing excessively or checking the baby monitor constantly while baby is sleeping. Maybe these thoughts make you doubt your parenting abilities, so you start googling everything baby related for answers, because you don’t trust yourself.
If we start judging the thoughts as bad or shaming ourselves for having the thoughts “I’m a bad person/parent” then that can actually increase the frequency of the thoughts because our overall anxiety is probably increasing. We can end up developing compulsive behaviours to soothe the fear of having the thoughts but the anxiety tells us we’re doing it to protect baby ie. Checking the baby monitor frequently.
When to ask for help
It’s very important to acknowledge that a lot of people feel anxious to disclose they are having intrusive thoughts. I think the biggest reason is a lack of understanding that intrusive thoughts are so common and in fact a typical part of the postpartum period and the human mind. I was afraid to disclose my intrusive thoughts when I was being assessed for Postpartum Anxiety and Depression because I was scared they would take my baby away from me. I had never heard anyone talk about intrusive thoughts before and no healthcare provider ever asked me if I had experienced them following the birth of any of my 3 kids. Another very important factor in parents not disclosing that they are having intrusive thoughts or struggling with symptoms of a mood or anxiety disorder is racism and various forms of oppression. When entire communities are excluded from compassionate care, research and discussions about Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders then it becomes very difficult to trust that the systems around you will protect you and your baby or provide you support.
If you get to a point where you feel you can’t cope with the anxiety or the intrusive thoughts, you’re feeling overwhelmed by thoughts then that is a good time to reach out to someone, anyone. If your usual coping strategies are not working or you develop compulsions to cope with the thoughts, i.e., excessive hand washing or checking that is disrupting your life or taking a lot of time out of your day then it can be very helpful to reach out for support. I always suggest you speak to someone close to you first, share your experience with someone you trust, if you have a partner or family member that is supporting you then reach out to them. If you feel that you need more strategies, then reaching out to a therapist trained in Perinatal Mental Health issues can be very helpful.
Coping with intrusive thoughts
As mentioned previously, intrusive thoughts can take us out of our window of tolerance, which means our window of coping, our tolerance for stress/anxiety/stimulation decreases. When we are out of our window of tolerance then we can feel very low or very over stressed. When we feel discomfort or very anxious or very depressed then we try to avoid whatever made us feel that way, of course. And so a lot of people try and resist the intrusive thoughts, push them out of their mind or ignore them. And this might help temporarily however this tends to make the thoughts louder. The thoughts are trying to tell us something; they’re trying to alert us to potential danger. If we ignore them, they will get louder so that they know you’ve acknowledged the potential danger.
Thoughts do not equal action. Just because we think or feel something doesn’t make it true. And people who are struggling with Perinatal Mood and Anxiety disorders very rarely act out on thoughts of harming themselves or their babies. Thoughts do not equal action.
We also want to anchor in ourselves, to trust ourselves to take care of baby, to be able to recognize potential danger in our environment and to protect baby. AND we also want to be able to recognize in ourselves that we can take care of baby if something does happen like they get sick or get hurt, that we will know what to do. A lot of times we worry that we won’t be able to cope or figure out, and we will. And if we don’t know something we can ask trusted friends and family!
What I usually encourage people to try is the process of managing the thoughts:
1 – Acknowledge that you’ve had an intrusive thought “I hear you thoughts, that you’re trying to alert me to the danger of walking down the stairs with baby”.
2 – Try not to judge the fact that you’re having the thoughts, try to avoid creating meaning around the fact you have the thoughts “I’m having these thoughts because something is wrong with me”.
3 – Try to distract yourself or focus on something else in the moment i.e., “I’m preparing lunch now, taking the food out of the fridge, washing the dishes”.
4 – Do something to soothe your nervous system if you are feeling unsettled, such as deep breathing, reminding yourself that you and baby are safe, using grounding skills such as noticing what is around you in the room (what you can see, hear, touch, smell, taste).
Managing your overall anxiety (which all new parents experience) can be so helpful in reducing intrusive thoughts and also to increase our tolerance for these thoughts. Doing things like protecting your sleep, eating as well as possible, drinking lots of water and doing things that soothe your nervous system can be so beneficial.
If you’re able to, seeking a therapist for extra support can be helpful in learning the process of managing your thoughts as well as having a safe place to talk about these experiences.
If you enjoy reading, then an incredible book for new parents is “Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts” by Karen Kleiman. So many parents have found comfort and support in this book.
And a great book for clinicians and parents is Karen Kleiman’s book “Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts: Breaking the Cycle of Unwanted Thoughts in Parenthood”, from which I have used a lot of information for this post as well as in my work with clients.
Reach out for support, talk to someone about your experiences and remember you are not alone, broken or a bad parent ❤️
Leave a comment and let me know what you think is a barrier for parents to reaching out for help with intrusive thoughts!