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April 1, 2024

March 6, 2024

Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts About Baby: The Role of Stress, Anxiety, and Anger

E:
215
with
Dr. Caroline Boyd
Clinical Psychologist

What You'll Learn

  • Why Moms Experience Intrusive Thoughts
  • Why Intrusive Thoughts Don’t Mean You’ll Harm Your Baby
  • The Role of Anxiety in Intrusive Thoughts
  • How Anger Can Increase Intrusive Thoughts
  • How to Create a Plan for Stressful Moments
  • Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

This post contains references to potentially scary or disturbing thoughts. Please use your discretion when reading. 

Almost everybody experiences intrusive thoughts occasionally—sudden ideas or images that pop into your head seemingly out of nowhere. But in motherhood, these thoughts can be jolting or disturbing—and overcoming unwanted intrusive thoughts isn’t always easy. 

Between 70-100% of moms deal with intrusive thoughts about harm coming to their baby—and 50% of them experience thoughts of intentionally harming them. 

When we have these thoughts, it often feels frightening. We might wonder if our thoughts are indicators that something terrible will happen, or a sign that there is something wrong with us. 

Intrusive thoughts are not premonitions or signs of deep, hidden desires. They are just thoughts—and the more we try to bury them without understanding what they are, the more they tend to stick around. But with awareness and the right plan of action, we can learn to move past these disturbing thoughts more easily. 

This week on The Momwell Podcast, I’m joined by clinical psychologist Dr. Caroline Boyd, author of Mindful New Mum, to discuss how moms can overcome unwanted intrusive thoughts. 

Why Moms Experience Intrusive Thoughts

Dr. Caroline began specializing in maternal mental health after becoming a mom and facing the challenges that so many of us struggle with. When she began experiencing intrusive thoughts, she knew what they were—but they were still jarring and disturbing. She realized that moms who were coping with these thoughts but didn’t know how to recognize and navigate them needed help. 

She began researching unwanted intrusive thoughts in motherhood, publishing several works on the topic. But she also wants to share her findings in an accessible way to parents everywhere. 

When we don’t know what to do with intrusive thoughts, they can feel paralyzing.

When we don’t know what to do with intrusive thoughts, they can feel paralyzing. We often feel shame or have difficulty moving past them.

Dr. Caroline pointed out that we have on average about 4,000 thoughts within a 16 hour day—so it’s no wonder that sometimes these thoughts are startling or unusual.  

Outside of motherhood, these thoughts can feel odd—we might suddenly think something like, “What if I jumped onto the train tracks?” or “What if I scream really loudly in this quiet building?” or even unwanted sexual thoughts about others. We often don’t share or talk about these thoughts because they are strange or inappropriate. 

But when we are caring for our child and these starts start to arise—particularly when they relate to harm coming to them—it can feel even more disturbing. 

Dr. Caroline pointed out that when we have a baby our threat system is dialed up. Biologically, this is to help us identify threats and protect our babies. But that high-level threat system can make us prone to anxiety-driven thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are more likely to occur if you are feeling stressed, unsupported, or sleep-deprived

She said that there are different kinds of intrusive thoughts:

  • Word thoughts (such as thinking “what if my baby stops breathing?” or “what if I drop my baby?”)
  • Vivid visions (such as your baby rolling off the changing mat) 
  • Unwanted impulses (such as thoughts of harming your baby). 

All of these images and thoughts can be very graphic, which is why they are so disturbing. 

Why Intrusive Thoughts Don’t Mean You’ll Harm Your Baby

Moms often find themselves horrified by these thoughts or experiencing strong emotional responses. They wonder if these are signs that they might hurt their baby or indicators of risk—especially when we hear horrible stories of postpartum psychosis or moms harming their children. They also might be concerned that if they tell someone about these thoughts their babies will be taken away. 

Intrusive thoughts are typically repulsive to us—things that we would absolutely never do.

But intrusive thoughts are typically repulsive to us—things that we would absolutely never do. Dr. Caroline pointed out that the very fact that we experience this disgusted or horrified response is a sign that we aren’t going to harm our babies. 

Unwanted intrusive thoughts are completely different than thoughts that might arise with postpartum psychosis. 

With psychosis, moms often don’t find the thoughts or impulses so disturbing. They make sense within the distorted reality they are living in. (If you are experiencing signs of posptartum psychosis or believe that you or anyone else might harm your baby, call emergency services right away). 

Intrusive thoughts do often accompany other mental health concerns, such as postpartum anxiety and postpartum OCD. But they aren’t indicators of postpartum psychosis. And while all moms can experience these thoughts, if they are arising often or feeling very strong, considering the possibility of anxiety or OCD is important. 

These are both very commons—11-20% of moms experience anxiety during pregnancy or postpartum, and 7-11% of moms experience OCD during that perinatal period. 

If you believe you might be experiencing postpartum anxiety or postpartum OCD, seeking support is important for your mental health and wellbeing—and finding a provider who is specialized in maternal mental health matters. 

Specialized and trained providers will understand the nuances of what you are going through and will know that intrusive thoughts don’t mean you are going to harm your baby. 

The Role of Anxiety in Intrusive Thoughts

When moms don’t understand their unwanted intrusive thoughts, they might allow them to impact their behavior, going to great lengths to protect their baby from whatever thoughts they are having. 

They might gatekeep or not allow any other caregivers to help with the baby out of fear that something awful will happen. Or they might even view themselves as “bad” or avoid caring for the baby themselves if the thoughts are of intentional harm. 

But Dr. Caroline pointed out that because intrusive thoughts are often anxiety-driven, those responses can actually perpetuate the cycle. The more that we allow anxious thoughts to consume us and impact our behavior, the stronger they will take hold, leading to more anxious thoughts. 

Our thoughts are not indicators of our character. They don’t mean we are bad moms.

It’s important to remember that our thoughts are not indicators of our character. They don’t mean we are bad moms—they are just thoughts. 

This can be hard to remember—especially in a time of the perfect mother myth, when we’re conditioned to believe that moms should always be joyful and nurturing, and that they are failing if they are not. Any thought that contradicts that image can feel particularly troublesome, making us doubt our abilities as moms. 

Destigmatizing intrusive thoughts is important. If we believe that there is something wrong with us, we suffer in silence and live in shame and blame. But if we talk about this experience and encourage other moms to open up about the realities of intrusive thoughts, we can realize that we aren’t alone.

From there, we can move forward without shame and develop skills to turn down the volume on these thoughts and move past them productively. 

How to Create a Plan for Stressful Moments

We often talk about intrusive thoughts through the lens of anxiety. But these thoughts aren’t always linked to anxiety—they can also arise from anger. 

There are intrusive thoughts that occur while we’re giving the baby a bath or walking down the stairs—worries that result in disturbing thoughts or images. But there are also thoughts that might come in the middle of the night, after multiple wakings and attempts to soothe the baby, or ongoing colic or the baby witching hour

Dr. Caroline said that her research has shown that intrusive thoughts are more likely to occur when moms have feelings of increasing frustration and anger. These types of thoughts often result in even more shame. 

But it makes sense that intrusive thoughts arise in angry moments—we are more likely to be stressed when we’re mad, and anger, stress, and anxiety play out similarly in our bodies. 

When our baby cries, it becomes a trigger for our fight-or-flight response. We’re wired to react. And when we are unable to soothe the baby, or we’re coping with extreme exhaustion, or feeling angry and resentful toward our partner if we’re carrying an unfair proportion of the weight, we’re creating the perfect storm for unwanted intrusive thoughts to arise. 

If we experience intrusive thoughts often, it can be a real sign that we need some extra support.

Dr. Caroline said that if we experience intrusive thoughts often, it can be a real sign that we need some extra support. 

In the moment, sometimes passing the baby off to someone else or putting them down safely to take a few minutes to self-regulate is the best thing to do. 

Then, outside of the moment, we can get in touch with unmet needs beneath the feelings of anger or anxiety. Is it the need for more support? The need for validation? The need for rest or sleep? 

It’s important to get in touch with what is going on for us in those moments and to remember that we’re not broken or bad moms—we are just human beings who can only carry so much. 

It can be helpful to have a plan for those in-the-moment stressful situations. When our baby is crying or our toddler is melting down, it can feel chaotic and high-stakes, making it hard to access our “logic” brain. 

Creating a go-to routine can help us stay calm and give us the space to move through the stress without escalating. Dr. Caroline developed a helpful approach for these situations called “The Three Rs.” 

Regulate

The first step is to regulate, keeping ourselves calm and pulling back from the escalated nervous system response. This might look like splashing water on your face or taking a drink of cold water. We can also notice the sensations in our body and practice deep breathing to soothe our nervous system. 

Reconnect

Dr. Caroline then recommends reconnecting with yourself first, by turning inward and naming our emotions, whether we’re tired, angry, or feeling resentful. We can also use self-compassionate coping statements such as “It’s okay that this is hard. Other moms struggle too, and it’s okay for my baby to cry.” 

The antidote to shame is empathy. 

Removing the shame and blame is important. Dr. Caroline said that the antidote to shame is empathy. 

Repair

After reconnecting with ourselves, we can reconnect with our baby through repair. Remembering that our baby doesn’t understand their feelings either can help us with this step. 

With babies, this might look like a gentle touch or a soft statement such as, “I hear you. It’s okay, Mommy’s here.” With an older child, apologizing and naming the behavior can help. We might say, “I’m sorry that I shouted when I got angry.” 

When the tension isn’t high, we can also talk back through the situation so they know that it’s okay to be angry, and that we all have to learn to improve our responses to anger. This can happen later during a less stressful time. 

Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts can be scary, but they are common and understandable. When we understand the factors at play, such as anxiety and anger, we can learn how to reduce the stress that triggers them, and move past them without shame when they do occur. 

Our thoughts aren’t indicators that anything is wrong with us—but that doesn’t mean we have to just cope alone. If your thoughts are impacting your life or you need help with the stress, anxiety, and anger at play, seeking support from a therapist can help. 

Our mom therapists offer a safe, judgment-free space to access mental health support. Book a FREE 15 minute virtual consult today!

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Tags:

Intrusive thoughts, Postpartum psychosis, Nervous system

Stage:

Postpartum, Motherhood

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OUR GUEST

Dr. Caroline Boyd
Clinical Psychologist

Chartered clinical psychologist Dr Caroline Boyd has over 10 years' experience working in the NHS and mental health settings, and she supports parents from pregnancy to childbirth and beyond. Caroline is the author of Mindful New Mum, and her published research explores mothers' experiences of intrusive thoughts about their babies. Her work has been featured in You magazine, Grazia, and Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4, and she is an Ambassador for UK perinatal mental health charity, PANDAS. Caroline specialises in supporting parents around anger and anxiety in her independent psychology practice, Parent Therapy Hub. She shares psychology ideas on Instagram and in the media to help parents feel more connected - to themselves and their children - and less alone.

Erica Djossa
Erica Djossa
PMH-C | Founder of Momwell
Erica is the founder of Momwell, providing educational resources and virtual therapy for moms. She is a mom of three boys and a registered psychotherapist. Erica’s work has been featured in the Toronto Star, Breakfast Television, Scary Mommy, Medium, Pop Sugar, and Romper. how they want it.
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