Intrusive thoughts don’t just occur when you have had a baby, they can occur at any given time, with any person. However, for today, I am going to focus on when you have had a baby and the impact that intrusive thoughts can have on you.
What are intrusive thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are invasive, scary, and often fear creating thoughts that pop into our head when we least expect it. They can make you feel guilt, shame, worry and anxiety when you have them. They are the kind of thoughts that can make you feel like you are in danger or your baby is in danger. They are the kind of thoughts that make you stop in your tracks and make you question who you are and why on earth you are having these thoughts.
Common intrusive thoughts after having a baby can include:
- Thoughts about harm to yourself or your baby (e.g. urges to throw your baby, to stop them crying forcefully, to hurt yourself so you go to hospital for a break)
- Sexual thoughts (e.g. thoughts surrounding sexual acts or visions, possibly when changing or bathing a child… this does not mean that you are attracted, this is purely anxiety and intrusive thoughts at play)
- Thoughts about death and dying
- Giving a child a serious disease
- Making the wrong decisions (e.g. questioning how you have parented and whether you have caused harm in some way)
- That you aren't good enough (this can also include comparison)
- That your child would be better off without you (e.g. thoughts about ending your life and thinking that you wouldn't be missed, that your child would be better without you)
This list is not exhaustive, but I am hoping that it can normalise some of the thoughts that many of us commonly have after having a baby.
I am going to say this here and then I am going to talk about this later in the post, but these thoughts are NOT FACTS, just because you are having these thoughts does not mean that you believe them to be true, they do not make you a bad person and it doesnt mean that you wish to act on these thoughts. Thoughts and actions are different things. They do not make you a bad person.
It is also important to note here, that if you feel like you do wish to act on these thoughts or feel like you are going to act on these thoughts, you should seek help, contact your GP and if you feel it is serious, go to A&E.
Why do we have them?
When we are a new Mum, our brain undergoes a lot of change, our emotional centre in our brain becomes more active. The reason that this happens is so that we can respond to threats to ourselves and our babies to protect both of us, to ensure our survival. We also get a huge dollop of lovely hormones, which can heighten our emotions. We develop an intense Mama bear feeling to protect our babies and that can impact our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. When you have a baby, you have a shift in the way that you perceive the world, so along with big changes in your brain, body, mind and thinking, it is also a time where you get a lot less sleep. Sleep is important for restoring your brain's functioning, without sleep, we can often find that we are more emotional, our anxiety is higher and we aren’t able to think as rationally as we can on a good nights sleep. Goodness me! All of this to contend with AND a new baby…
Now, throw a NICU stay in there, an extra level of trauma, uncertainty, anxiety and distress. Then, possible birth trauma where there was maybe a threat to our lives and/ or our babies lives. Wait, one more, a pandemic?! Surely not, but put that on top and we’re in an even higher level of stress than we would usually be. We are in uncertain, scary and worrying times and we are doing the best that we can in the given situation, especially as we have never been through any of these things before.
We are therefore prepped to experience a higher level of anxiety as a new Mum and given what we have been through, we may have even more anxiety than we expected. Our brain has evolved to keep us and our baby safe, we scan for threats so that we can be ready to react and keep ourselves safe. Whilst doing this, we generate lots of thoughts subconsciously. We have many many thoughts that we don’t pay attention to and therefore they move on fairly quickly without even entering our awareness. Occasionally, we can have a thought that pushes our fear response and therefore it gets bought into our awareness, our brain reacts in this way, so that you can be prepared to react in the way that you need to to protect yourself… useful right? Hmm… not always. Because sometimes there isn’t a physical threat present, sometimes, we don’t need to experience that fear because our brains have created it. Our brain doesn’t know the difference between real life threats that we need to respond to and ones that our brain has created. Therefore we react with fight-flight or freeze in response to a threat which isn't actually present.
Is it just me?
It is not just you, most people experience intrusive thoughts to some extent. The difference is that some people are able to let go of the thoughts and other people hold on to them, give them meaning and attention and develop fear which then becomes a vicious circle that they feel trapped in.
What keeps them coming back?
When we have an intrusive thought, we pay attention to them, but we then also can attach meaning to them too… What does this mean about me? Do I actually want to do this? Why am I thinking this way? Am I going mad? No one else will think like this. It is just me.
We feel guilt, shame, worry and we exacerbate the thought we had with a second, third, fourth and fifth thought, which ultimately then impacts our emotional reaction and possibly our behaviour. Some people go on to develop obsessive compulsive disorder, where they complete an action to try and diminish the thoughts power (e.g. if I rub this piece of wood, it will mean that the thought I have just had won’t come true). But for people who do not develop an action as a result of the thought, the cognitive process alone can be a maintaining factor, to keep those intrusive thoughts coming back and putting a big shining light around them in your brain, to keep letting you know about these intrusive thoughts because we feel like they are something that we need to pay attention to.
We can also try and push those thoughts away when we have them, we can think “I dont want to think about that…” avoid, avoid, avoid…. Unfortunately, that doesn't work. If I told you now to not think about pink elephants, what happens? I said, don’t think about pink elephants!
We think about pink elephants, right? Gosh, how annoying, but i just said DON’T think about them. When we try to push a thought out of our conscious, they tend to come back bigger and stronger. Our brains don't actually process the word “don’t” (tip for working with kids too), our brain tends to just listen to the sentence that follows the word don’t.
How can I reduce their power over me?
We have spoken about attention and meaning. So this is what we can do to reduce their power and control over you.
When we have an intrusive thought, if we notice it, label it, acknowledge it, show yourself some compassion and let it go, then it doesn't end up spiralling in the way that we have spoken about.
You can even say this out loud, write it down, draw it out, or just say it to yourself in your mind.
“Huh, that's an intrusive thought, that wasn't a nice thing to think, thanks brain but I don't need to think about that right now, I am going through a lot, take a breath, it doesn't mean anything about who I am, I let it go”.
This process takes practice, but you are able to live in the same space as your intrusive thoughts without allowing them to take control over you.
The first thought isn't the important one, it's what you do with that thought that is important.