Intrusive thoughts: what's normal?
Here we go...I've had clients whisper to me their thoughts of intentionally or unintentionally harming their baby at their 6-week postpartum visit. They're scared and unsure about what type of mother they are for having these thoughts-- Is it normal? Are they losing their mind?
Fast forward to my postpartum period-- intrusive thoughts are something I experienced, you probably have to, and they can feel terrifying. I'd have thoughts or images about harming my daughter even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. I'd be doing laundry and out of nowhere think, "what if I put her in the washer?" During one of these intrusive thoughts I got really freaked out, so I stopped and asked, "am I actually concerned about hurting my daughter right now? Or can I recognize this as a thought passing through?" I took a deep breath, looked at my daughter and could recognize I did not want to harm her. I called a friend to talk while I physiologically calmed down. I've spent the last 10 years listening to postpartum women describe this experience to me, I'm trained in identifying it, and yet, I know I'm not alone in questioning what's normal.
As many as 80% of new parents experience intrusive thoughts! People, most new parents experience unwanted negative thoughts about their infants — the same kinds of thoughts that mothers with postpartum OCD or postpartum psychosis experience! Still, there's a difference between normal intrusive thoughts, intrusive thoughts associated with postpartum OCD, depression, or anxiety, and intrusive thoughts associated with postpartum psychosis.
When you experience intrusive thoughts they can feel mildly distressing or deeply disturbing depending on a number of things like brain chemistry, postpartum hormonal fluctuations, the increased responsibility of caring for a newborn, or the stigma attached to the thoughts. The difference between normal intrusive thoughts and a postpartum mood disorder is in how distressing the thoughts feel to you and/or if you develop compulsive/ritualistic behavior to compensate for the thoughts. When normally occurring postpartum thoughts of harming your infant are misconstrued as dangerous it can make you feel anxious and fearful. The more distressed we are by these ideas, the more we try to push them out of our mind, and paradoxically, the more we think about them. It's how our brain works. Researchers at Harvard University conducted a study where they asked people to not think of a white bear. Participants were allowed to think about anything they wanted, except a white bear. The problem is that our mind wants to constantly check to see how we're doing. We check to see if we are succeeding at NOT thinking about the white bear, but, whoops, there's the bear. The more we stigmatize the thought, the more prone we are to worry and compensate for them, as in the case of postpartum OCD. This might look like avoidance (ex: you don't bathe or hold your baby to protect them from potential harm), which can negatively impact bonding with your baby. Or, you may feel like having an intrusive thought is the same as acting on it, which makes believe there is an increased chance of doing something you don't want to do.
If you have an intrusive thought that makes you feel ashamed, check in with yourself and talk to someone you trust. You deserve to rest and bond with your baby with peace of mind. If these intrusive thoughts are causing you emotional uneasiness, if they negatively impact your ability to bond with baby, or lead to compulsive rituals, seek help. If the intrusive thought feels 'right', like it's compatible with your world view or in your child's best interest, this can be a sign of postpartum psychosis. Please seek help. Listed below are postpartum support groups and hotlines to reach out to if you meet the above criteria. Keep talking, mama. You're not weird or alone.