New Moms: Scary Thoughts
The weight of being a new mom and keeping a tiny human alive can be incredibly hard. Combined with hormone changes, lack of sleep, and relational adjustments, your mind can begin to seek out some of the most dramatic ways that you could fail. These thoughts are so common and not talked about enough. They come from a place of realizing how vulnerable your baby is and how responsible you are for this new life. Often, intrusive thoughts are actually the opposite of what you would want to happen.
Everyone has unwanted thoughts that go against who they are and what they stand for as a person. Intrusive thoughts seem to be a universal part of being human. Sally Winston, Psychologist and Founder/Co-Director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, says “intrusive thoughts are a sudden onset of stuck thoughts that cause great distress.” These thoughts are usually correlated with something or someone we greatly care about and can be deeply stressful. The thoughts are often scary, violent, or disturbing. For example, some mothers report having a sudden thought like, “what if my baby fell down the stairs?” Or even, “what if I dropped my baby down the stairs?”
According to Jonathan Abramowitz who is a leading expert on intrusive thoughts, 91% of new moms and 88% of new dads experience thoughts of harm coming to their babies. New moms often don’t talk about these common, yet horrific thoughts for fear of judgment, embarrassment, or feeling as if they may be going “crazy.” The most important thing to remember is that having scary thoughts does not make you a bad or “crazy” mom.
What do these thoughts mean?
Unfortunately, new moms do not talk about their unwanted thoughts because of the rare, yet tragic stories we read on social media about a mom who actually harms her baby.
Postpartum psychosis is a rare mental health emergency where a mom can be at risk for harming herself or her baby. Postpartum psychosis is when the mom’s reality is distorted and she actually believes that she is helping herself or the baby by hurting them – the thoughts make sense to her. She may experience symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, obsessive or fearful thoughts, deep paranoid or thoughts of harming herself or her baby. This condition is very serious, yet treatable and requires immediate medical intervention. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, call your doctor or 911 immediately.
For the vast majority of new moms who have intrusive thoughts – these thoughts or images feel foreign and are out of line with who you are as a person. They feel horrific and upsetting – they do not make sense to you. The fact that you are disturbed by the thoughts is exactly what makes them intrusive – not actual desires.
What can I do about these thoughts?
Trying to ignore or tell yourself to stop thinking about the scary thoughts does not work. If I told you to stop thinking about a pink zebra, guess what?! You would think about that pink zebra more. What does work is learning about and acknowledging what is happening.
1) Change the narrative. When an intrusive thought comes, name the thought as intrusive without shaming or attaching judgment to it. Tell yourself that this thought is actually your brain’s way of telling you that you want to nurture and protect your baby.
2) Tell someone you trust about your thoughts. Remaining silent about these scary thoughts can increase feelings of shame and anxiety. “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive,” says Dr. Brene Brown.
3) Contact your OBGYN and/or a counselor. A professional may be able to give you more than just empathy, they can help you better understand what is happening and develop strategies to cope with the unwanted thoughts.
If you or someone you love is struggling with scary thoughts as a new mom, please reach out today. I would love to talk with you about ways that I can help.