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Intrusive Thoughts Are Scary But They Don’t Make You a Bad Mom

Intrusive thoughts are unwelcome and often very upsetting thoughts that can literally come out of nowhere and leave you horrified.

In a flash you may have a vision of dropping your baby or somehow hurting them with your kitchen knives. This thought leaves any mom terrified of what she may be capable of. Intrusive thoughts quickly lead to ‘what-if’ scenarios where you begin to question your ability to act on that thought.

You also start to think about what a horrible person you are and that something must be very, very wrong. After all, normal people don’t have these kind of thoughts, do they?

The Reality of My Intrusive Thoughts

Intrusive thoughts were one of the most exhausting and debilitating parts of my experience with postpartum depression and anxiety. The thoughts and visions that would pop into my head left me terrified of what I might be capable of. I began to avoid situations and scenarios where there was a chance that I could act on one of these thoughts.

This meant that I wouldn’t give my son a bath without my husband or another family member present. I was convinced that I would drown him in the tub and could envision myself purposely letting go of him while in the water.

I also tried to avoid my kitchen at all costs. This time my intrusive thoughts were about all manner of horrible ways that he could be hurt. My kitchen knives were an area where I focused a lot of attention for fear of using these as weapons.

The stove and microwave were also things to stay away from. I didn’t trust myself around either appliance and would think about all manner of terrifying things that could happen. As soon as I would have an intrusive thought, I would begin to obsess over the thought and ask over and over, “What if I did that? What if I followed though and hurt my son? What kind of person am I? Who has these kind of thoughts?”

Intrusive Thoughts Are Not Who You Are

If what I’ve described sounds a lot like something you have experience with, know that you’re not alone. Intrusive thoughts are a common and unwelcome part of postpartum anxiety. They’re scary and leave you feeling like a bad mom, or even a bad person with something very wrong with you.

The good news is that intrusive thoughts are just that – thoughts. While they’re upsetting, they’re not a reflection of who you are. The therapist I was seeing during that time told me something very important that helped me as I navigated through my recovery.

She said that the fact that I was so deeply upset by these thoughts, and put safeguards in place for fear of acting on them was actually a good thing. If these thoughts were occurring and I wasn’t upset by them, then there would be cause for concern.

Despite this my perception of myself as a mother was still heavily impacted. I felt that I was carrying around a shameful secret that no one else could understand. I feared that admitting my thoughts to anyone would lead to judgement, more shame and isolation.

Related: How to Find the Right Therapist When You’re Looking for Help

Intrusive Thoughts Can Be Managed

It may seem counter intuitive, but when I talked with other moms experiencing postpartum anxiety and we brought up our intrusive thoughts, it helped to ease the worry.

Speaking about these thoughts and describing them meant that they started to lose their power. I actually got to a point where I could sit and laugh about the crazy thoughts that had once gone through my head.

In addition to finding other moms who understood what intrusive thoughts were really like, I also went to therapy, found an effective medication and increased my self-care. In my case it meant getting regular amounts of quality sleep, exercise and changes to my diet.

I also started to use techniques that I’d come across in my research online or through my therapist. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) was useful in challenging ‘what-if’ thoughts and I really got a lot out of keeping a worry journal.

Related: I’m a Mom with Anxiety and Depression and Here’s How I Manage Both

Start a Worry Journal

Often one of the best techniques for conquering phobias or specific fears is exposure therapy. This is where you (with the help of a therapist!) expose yourself in small increments to whatever it is that you fear, like flying or heights, and gradually overcome your anxiety. This is easier said than done when your thoughts and fears are about the future, as they often are with ‘what-if’ worries and intrusive thoughts.

A worry journal asks you to write out a hypothetical scenario that is causing you anxiety. In my case it was, “what if I drown my baby?” As brutally uncomfortable as it was, I sat and diligently wrote out everything that could happen should this thought ever materialize.

The key to success with a worry journal is to put everything on the page, and I mean everything. Describe your actions, feelings, emotions and thoughts as if the situation is actually happening.

What I found is that by going through the entire situation on paper, the anxious or intrusive thought would quickly dissipate. By walking myself through the entire event, I saw how irrational it was. It became just a thought – not my identity.

Repeat this process until the thought doesn’t bother you anymore. Each time you journal about the same event, you are exposing yourself to it and all the possible ramifications. This is the same idea behind traditional exposure therapy, where you repeat an experience multiple times until it no longer effects you. It’s a very powerful tool in working through your intrusive thoughts.

You Can Hold the Power Over Intrusive Thoughts

When we keep our intrusive thoughts to ourselves, they can hold immense power over us. By actively speaking them aloud with someone you trust like a therapist or another mom with the same lived experience, they can begin to weaken their grip.

Most importantly, remember that intrusive thoughts are just thoughts. We are not our thoughts and they’re not a reflection of who we are as moms. With the right treatment and professional help, you can move through your intrusive thoughts. Before trying any of the suggestions here, make sure you speak with your doctor of health care provider.

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Shannon Hennig is the Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.