Updated: Oct 22, 2022
Many new parents experience intrusive thoughts. In fact, according to a study conducted in 2019 up to 100% of new mothers had intrusive thoughts involving infant-related harm. Having intrusive thoughts does not necessarily mean that there is something wrong with you or that you need to seek help. If you need to get help really depends on the severity of the thoughts and how they impact your day-to-day functioning. Generally, having intrusive thoughts means that you care about your baby deeply and you most like have some unmet needs. That same study from 2019 found that having intrusive thoughts was more related to "one’s on-going concerns" and tend to be more frequent during "... stressful emotion situations and negative emotional states"1 They did not find intrusive thoughts to be correlated to actual aggression toward their baby. These thoughts are simply that, just thoughts.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts
How can you recognize an intrusive thought from just any other random thought? Usually, intrusive thoughts are disturbing and center around concerns that your baby will get hurt or that you will hurt your baby. An example of these types of thoughts could be "What would happen if this boiling water fell on my baby?" "What if I dropped my baby?" "What if my baby doesn't wake up after their nap?" These thoughts can catch you completely off guard because your baby is not in any actual danger, it's just a thought bubbling up. If you have never experienced an intrusive thought before, it can feel like something hijacked your body and the loss of control of your thoughts can feel scary. Feel uncomfortable from intrusive thoughts can lead us to use our go-to coping skills which may or may not be healthy.
These thoughts can be pretty upsetting so this really begs the question as to why new moms get intrusive thoughts up to 100% of the time. Is there something helpful about them? Although there can be a multitude of causes and reasons why each individual person has intrusive thoughts, it is worth noting here that there is no definitive answer to why moms get intrusive thoughts. It is known, however, that the more pressure and stress a mother experiences, the more likely she is to have intrusive thoughts. So these thoughts are in many ways related to stress and our needs being met as caregivers. The less our needs are met, the more stressed we will become, and the more our bodies may signal our distress through intrusive thoughts.
If up to 100% of new moms are having intrusive thoughts, why isn't anyone talking about it? That is a really good question. There is definitely a stigma around being open about mental health challenges. New parents are so focused on trying to meet their baby's needs and be good parents, they may feel deeply ashamed that they have intrusive thoughts about their baby getting hurt. Since the thought content of an intrusive thought is generally disturbing, most mothers try to ignore it or wait for it to get better on its own since they are concerned that others may think they aren't a good mom if they have intrusive thoughts. The problem with that is that if the cause or exacerbating factors are not addressed, the intrusive thoughts will keep coming like an alarm clock that keeps getting snoozed.
5 Ways To Manage (not ignore) intrusive thoughts
#1: Acknowledge the thoughts. They are part of a complex system that is there to protect you. These thoughts are there to shine a light on areas of your life where your needs might not be getting met fully. Listen to these thoughts. The literal meaning of the thoughts usually is not the message. The message is behind the words. What is the feeling behind the message? Fear of inadequacy or hopelessness? What need is not getting met that is causing you to feel this way?
#2 After acknowledging the thought (and feeling behind the thought), it is important to ground yourself. You are HERE and you are only living in the present moment. All fears are projected futures that have not happened. Notice the present moment with your 5 senses. What can you taste, smell, hear, feel and see where you are?
#3 After you have landed back into the here and now through grounding, check-in about your needs. Take an inventory. What needs are feeling neglected and which are not? For the needs that aren't being met, what can you do to meet them? Who can help you meet them?
#4 I say who because parenthood is not meant to be an isolated task for the nuclear family. We evolved with and NEED a village of care filled with friends, aunties, grandpas, neighbors, spiritual leaders, etc who also care for our babies and support us. If you do not have this village yet, please consider making an effort to build it. You were not meant to parent on your own and it will be hard to meet your needs without more support.
#5 The final step to addressing intrusive thoughts is gratitude. Gratitude is the antidote to anxiety. We can build gratitude into our daily routine and also use it when we are actively experiencing intrusive thoughts. Our intrusive thoughts are there BECAUSE we have so much that matters to us. We wouldn't be terrified of losing our loved ones if we didn't have loved ones. We give thanks for what we have, for we are lucky to have so much to lose.
When to get help
Since intrusive thoughts are most likely a shared experience among most if not all parents, having an intrusive thought does not necessarily mean you need help. If the thoughts start to negatively impact your day-to-day life or the content becomes very disturbing and you are starting to feel like you are losing touch with reality then it's time to seek help. Help can be in the form of contacting a helpline, a therapist, or a medical provider. If they don't know how to help you, make sure they refer you to someone who does.