Intrusive Thoughts during the Postpartum Period
Intrusive Thoughts during the Postpartum Period can be debilitating. So you’re laying in bed, physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted from your day with an infant at home. You recognize that with each passing minute, you’re losing quality, desperately needed sleep that will likely only come in a small chunk before your baby wakes up again. Inwardly, you groan. Motherhood is so much tougher than you ever expected, and you are feeling so drained. Then, of course, those thoughts slowly creep back into your head like waves washing over rocks.
Intrusive thoughts that are unspeakable
You know the ones. The ones that you can’t speak out loud because if you do, it might make them come true. Debilitating thoughts that keep you from venturing outdoors on a nice day or attending a family party. All the “what-ifs” of anxiety that play out time and time again like a beast that cannot be tamed. Sometimes they’re terrifying; “what if I fall with the baby and injure her? I shouldn’t go anywhere near the stairs with my baby” or “I wish he’d stop crying already. What could I do to him to make him stop?” One of the most disturbing thoughts in your mind might be the fear that you actually want to cause harm to yourself or your baby. In most cases, though, this is a complete myth and generally suggests that you are concerned for the opposite.
Thoughts that fill women with shame, embarrassment
For many, many women, it feels shameful to have thoughts of directly or indirectly hurting themselves or their babies. They beat themselves up inwardly with degrading names or even hurting themselves intentionally due to these types of intrusive thoughts. Though they might seek therapy or counseling for these intrusive, anxious episodes, they may not speak even to their therapist about their deep, secret fears or thoughts of hurting them self or their baby for fear of judgment.
PPD or PPA describes these intrusive thoughts as NORMAL
In a study of 491 women at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA, 17% of women at their six-week, postpartum visit were found to have either postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety (Colino & Fabiano-Weber, n.d.). For so many women, these intrusive thoughts surrounding their or their baby’s well-being are completely normal and very much symptoms of postpartum anxiety or postpartum depression- and this is treatable! Though the thoughts are debilitating, stressful, and sleep-depriving, they are normal by the definitions of each disorder and completely able to be overcome with a little help!
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Intrusive Thoughts
Anxiety is completely treatable and there are many approaches to overcoming anxious, intrusive thoughts. It is not a best practice to assume the thoughts will go away on their own. In fact, untreated anxiety can lead to a lifetime battle with mental illness, so it is best to seek help if symptoms are persistent (Colino & Fabiano-Weber, n.d.). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT therapy, seeks to make thoughts more rational so as not to consume or overwhelm your mind. Meditation, muscle-relaxation techniques, and/or mindfulness are also ways a therapist might help a patient overcome anxious thoughts.
How to keep from analyzing the debilitating thoughts
Another approach to therapy for anxious, intrusive thoughts is to simply identify them as unwanted and then move over those thoughts – keep going about your day and ignore them. “Unwanted intrusive thoughts are reinforced by getting entangled with them, worrying about them, struggling against them, trying to reason them away” (Seif & Winston, 2018). It is not enough to ignore them but to allow them to pass by without giving them added attention. Eventually, your brain will let the thoughts float through without a second thought and they will, in time, dissipate. Trying to figure out their meaning or treat the thoughts themselves will only draw more attention to them and fuel anxiety.
Hope for the future without anxiety
You are not alone; many women suffer symptoms of postpartum anxiety, postpartum depression, and general anxiety disorder. Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby do not mean you are going to act on those thoughts. You are capable, confident, and strong and seeking additional help from a therapist is not something to ever be ashamed about. The first step to a solid recovery from anxiety is admitting the thoughts are present, as gruesome as your mind may make them. Life doesn’t have to be about hiding from these anxious thoughts and fearing the worst for yourself or your baby. Intrusive thoughts can be run from the mind and the strong, logical person you are will prevail once again.
Colino, Stacey & Fabiano-Weber, Nicole (n.d.). Postpartum Anxiety: The Other Baby Blues We Need to Talk About. Retrieved from https://www.parents.com/parenting/moms/healthy-mom/the-other-postpartum-problem-anxiety/
Seif, Martin Phd & Winston, Sally PsyD (2018). Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/unwanted-intrusive-thoughts
Read more about Postpartum Depression and Anxiety.