Intrusive thoughts on motherhood are horrifying. Postnatal Anxiety is real. They’re vivid, distressing thoughts about something happening to your baby, or to you, or to someone else who you love. And they often play on repeat. I had them as part of postnatal anxiety, and they haunted me for a long time. Deeply distressing thoughts about rolling on top of my gorgeous baby while he sleeps, or while breastfeeding.
Images of dropping him while walking down the stairs. Nightmares woke me full of panic, sweating, heart racing, in tears. The actual panic attacks that followed took hours to calm down from afterward. Vivid scenes of the pram rolling down the hill while on our afternoon walk, being hit by a car. It was like I was in my thoughts. It was so vivid. So real.
Add to this sleep deprivation & exhaustion. Goodness, even writing about this now brings it all back. And actually, this is the first time I’ve written about my experiences with intrusive thoughts. I’ve never talked about this before, other than with my husband. The thing is I’ve always wanted what’s best for my baby boy. I’ve always only wanted to be the best mum to him. I was deeply worried at the time of having these thoughts… what would happen if I confessed to thinking them?
It’s part of motherhood surely, to desperately want to feel like we’re doing a good job. We may say we don’t need external acknowledgment or people telling us we’re doing well, but it’s what we thrive on in the early days and months.
As mums it’s natural to want to do what’s best for our babies, to love them unconditionally and protect them from harm. But when a vivid, intrusive thought comes in, it screws everything up. We may feel helpless and ashamed of what we’re thinking. Embarrassed. Shocked. Surprised. Distressed. Many emotions at once.
We won’t want to tell anyone for fear of what they’ll think of us. We’ll bottle it up, say nothing, and hope & pray the thoughts don’t come back. And in some women, these thoughts are a rare occurrence. In fact, I do think many mums experience intrusive thoughts, but they simply don’t talk about them.
Infrequent, sporadic intrusive thoughts don’t usually cause a problem from my knowledge, probably because the woman just brushes them off and gets on with her day. But in others, these thoughts cause a lot of pain and heartache. They’re hurtful and scary, and they make us question our mothering abilities. I say this from personal experience because it’s what happened to me. In fact, although I was diagnosed with postnatal anxiety, I still didn’t talk about having intrusive thoughts at the time, not even with my doctor. This post is the first time I feel brave enough to do so.
And I still don’t feel brave but I’m talking about them anyway because I believe it’s important to do so. Now I want to explain that if you’re experiencing intrusive thoughts you’re certainly not alone and help is available. Researchers have found that up to *90% of new parents experience intrusive thoughts. 90%!! That’s a huge number of new parents.
Mothers, in particular, are more prone to suffering them in the postnatal period. And as disturbing as these thoughts are, it’s certainly not a reflection of your ability to be the mother that you want to be. As I said, loads of us experience them, it’s just not enough of us to talk about them. Some women are able to mind hack their way out of their thoughts, to push them aside and ignore them.
Yet many mums take these thoughts to heart and want to do whatever it takes to prevent a scenario happening out of the thoughts. This was me all over.
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I was obsessed with the health of my baby, and about my own health too. I didn’t want to leave the house in case one of the intrusive thoughts came true. Some mums aren’t even able to cuddle their babies for fear of suffocating them, all because of these horrific thoughts. It’s heartbreaking.
It’s important to acknowledge that this is how powerful a single thought can be. And if you’re suffering from them, not be hard on yourself. It’s not your fault. Intrusive thoughts which affect daily life can be a feature of an anxiety disorder or postnatal depression, but they can also be a normal feature of motherhood. And what I wish to do here is to offer reassurance. These intrusive thoughts are not a reflection of you as a mother. I say this because I thought I was a terrible mum for having them. It’s why I never spoke about them, and yet, now I see how harmful that was for me. Because the truth is these are just thoughts. Read that again. Just thoughts. As painful as they are to experience, they’re not real life.
Having intrusive thoughts doesn’t mean we’re bad moms. If we’re getting upset by these thoughts, that’s a really good sign because it means we recognize them as a threat. We realize they’re not normal to us. We want them to stop. So with that said I want to share a practice with you which is what I did at the time in response to my intrusive thoughts. Whenever one popped into my head, I practiced a technique which I call ‘the flip’ which is something I now teach extensively in my coaching practice. As soon as I recognized the intrusive thought, I flipped it. I turned the thought around immediately.
I thought of the happiest, best outcome I could possibly imagine. And I repeated this. Day in, day out. I never stopped. I practiced and practiced. Each intrusive thought instantly got switched off, and I chose a new thought instead. I had affirmations posted everywhere around my house reminding me to do this with the thoughts, and with my anxiety in general. I forced myself not to listen to them. Not let them upset me. Not to picture them so vividly.
And gradually, the thoughts went away. Yes, they do go away, I can vouch for that. The truth is we can’t control what thoughts pop into our heads, and especially in the postnatal period our hormones play a big part in how anxious we feel, and in having these thoughts in the first place. Because we’re a new mum we’re in hyper protection mode of our babies and these thoughts represent a worst-case imagined scenario. Biology dictates this to us. We’re literally wired to be on high alert. Protecting our little one at all costs. So what we need to do with these thoughts is to learn not to listen to them. Learn to flip them like I did, or tell them to F the F off! Learn to not give so much power to them.
And most importantly, we must not be afraid to open up and talk about them if we’re finding it hard to cope, and if they’re becoming stronger, or more frequent. It’s a sign of strength to ask for help, it’s not a weakness. Every single human being spends much of their life living in fear. Yet the thing is if we talked about how we’re feeling we’d realize we’re not alone. We’d find understanding and empathy, support and guidance on how to help ourselves, and we’d be told that we’re doing OK.
We’d get the help we really need. The encouragement we need. The support we need. Sometimes we just need to talk, and to have someone listen to us. So please remember, a thought is just a thought. As powerful as a thought can be, we are more powerful. The crazy thing is, we’re the ones who give power to these thoughts and encourage them to grow bigger if we keep thinking about them. Yet we can force ourselves not to do this, and instead, really work on understanding that a thought is just a thought.
It’s not real life. It’s not a future prediction. It’s not even something tangible which we can hold onto! I mean, what even is a thought? Now, if you’re experiencing intrusive thoughts as a mum please know you’re certainly not alone and remember these thoughts do not represent reality. They’re only thoughts and you have the ability to choose a different thought. You can flip that thought right round as soon as it comes in. It takes lots of practice and perseverance, but it’s so worth it.
And ultimately, the best way to deal with these thoughts is to talk about them. Bring them out in the open. Speak to a professional, someone who can reassure you and provide comfort, and help you get rid of them.
Get help and support if you’re struggling in any way in motherhood. Like I said before, asking for help is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. (Kindly note this post is providing my personal opinion on the topic of intrusive thoughts & postnatal anxiety, based on how I helped myself deal with them. However, this article is no replacement for medical care and attention. Please get urgent medical help if you’re struggling to maintain control over intrusive thoughts.)
The information contained in this post is for general information purposes only. Intrusive Thoughts On Motherhood - Postnatal Anxiety is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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