What are Postpartum Intrusive Thoughts?

I wanted to address postpartum intrusive thoughts because I feel it’s another one of those areas that no one talks about! I experienced these but had no idea it was common in motherhood and didn’t even put a name to these thoughts until Psychotherapist and Mother Anna Mathur talked about them in one of her Instagram posts. I thought I knew all about Intrusive Thoughts having worked in the Psychology department of an inpatient psychiatric hospital. They were thoughts that only people with serious mental health issues suffered with right? Um wrong! Anna Mathur too had a baby with colic and silent reflux (why is it called that? there’s NOTHING silent about silent reflux!), finally I could put a name to these thoughts, I wasn’t a horrible person, there was a reason!

My Why

My first baby was born via assisted delivery after a long labour and a bit of drama which meant I had already not slept for three days. He cried all night long that first night. All I needed, all anyone needs after birth, was to rest and sleep. He was a super alert baby with silent reflux and colic. Sleep was not happening anytime soon! During the day he would only cat nap and would always wake like he was in pain, screeching so loudly that one time I rushed him to the doctors to just be told to try baby Gaviscon. Nothing worked. One particularly dark night after trying to settle him for a long time, I was done. I started to have thoughts of throwing him out the window or against the bed post. Anything to just make the crying stop. This was scary. Scary because I didn’t know if I would act on them or not. I didn’t want to but the need for the crying to stop was like a desperation I’d never felt before. I did feel a deep need to protect him but I also knew that I had zero capacity to manage my own mental and physical state. Sometimes I wonder what could have happened if I didn’t have a support system around me, that thought makes me shudder. I had my husband and one or two nights a week we’d also have my mom who would take him. It was around this time that a well meaning lady at church approached me saying ‘oh you must be on cloud nine, aren’t you just loving it?’ I looked at her like she was on crack! This was not the sleepy, dreamy newborn phase I’d heard about. This was physically hard, emotionally raw and spiritually pretty dark. Prayers for sleep were not working. After staring blankly at the lady for a moment not knowing how to respond, whilst inwardly screaming ‘I hate this!’ I simply just said ‘oh well it’s really hard but yes isn’t he lovely’. It doesn’t feel right to say how you’re really feeling sometimes. I’ve since learned that you can hate the hard parts but still love the child.

These unwanted thoughts, called Intrusive Thoughts, are rarely spoken about amongst mums, especially new mums. It’s not a topic that comes up in baby group and it’s never asked about in baby check ups. You don’t bring it up because you’re not meant to have thoughts like that about your own baby right?! Thanks to Anna Mathur’s post and some further research I have since done, I found out that having them did not mean I was going to act on them or that I was a bad person for having them at all, they were just thoughts. Thoughts that meant I was exhausted and at the end of my own ability to cope.

So with baby number 3 in the midst of a global pandemic I knew what to do when such thoughts surfaced. Thankfully they were milder this time. I was able to let go of trying to control sleep and activities more willingly, knowing it wouldn’t be forever. It wasn’t and now everyone sleeps pretty well, mostly in their own beds!

What are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts that can cause great distress. They can come out of no-where and cause a great deal of anxiety (Seif & Winston, 2018). Thankfully all the literature on intrusive thoughts states that although distressing they don’t actually mean the person is going to act on them. For example Renzulli (2023) states that there is an important difference between harm related thoughts and intending to cause harm. Her blog article states that harm related thoughts are often unwanted, unexpected and are usually the opposite of what the person wants to do. Whereas intending to cause harm is an actual desire to cause harm to someone. It emerges from a place of intent and desire. The important thing to remember is that thinking something doesn’t mean you are capable of doing it (iesohealth, 2019). I think the scary part is that you don’t really know that at the time. It is a relief to know they are very common. Iesohealth (2019) also states that intrusive thoughts are usually the opposite of what we actually want or intend to do. 

Why do Intrusive Thoughts happen?

The American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology (2023) defines Intrusive Thoughts as ‘mental events that interrupt the flow of task-related thoughts’. They are often triggered by stress or anxiety and are common after trauma. Giving birth can be pretty traumatic no matter how it happens. They can also happen due to biological factors such as big hormone shifts after child birth. Dr Williams (2021, as cited in Bilodeau, 2021), a lecturer at Harvard Medical School says that ‘any life stressor if big enough can increase your risk of having intrusive thoughts’. They may well have a purpose in helping us to anticipate and prevent problems (iesohealth, 2019). This makes sense in terms of dealing with a newborn. If you are having them it simply means you are depleted in some way, most likely mentally and physically, which is pretty much the experience of all new mothers.

Did you have a traumatic birth? Is your baby crying non-stop, seemingly in pain and you don’t know what to do to settle them? Are you emotionally overwhelmed at the enormity of the change to your life? You can know that if you’re experiencing scary, intrusive thoughts it’s a sign you need some extra support. I’ve compiled a list of 10 ways to try and help manage intrusive thoughts that I know helped me. I hope they can help you too. Read the article here.

References

  1. Bilodeau (2021) Managing Intrusive Thoughts. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/managing-intrusive-thoughts
  2. Iesohealth (2019) What are Intrusive Thoughts. Retrieved from https://www.iesohealth.com/wellbeing-blog/what-are-intrusive-thoughts#:~:text=October%201%2C%202019,%E2%80%8D
  3. Intrusive Thoughts. 2023. In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved September 12th, 2023 from https://dictionary.apa.org/intrusive-thoughts
  4. Renzulli (2023) Understanding the Difference: Harm-Related Intrusive Thoughts and Wanting to Harm Someone. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/understanding-difference-harm-related-intrusive
  5. Seif & Winston (2018) Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/unwanted-intrusive-thoughts

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