Intrusive Thoughts Experienced by New Parents: What They Are & Tips on How to Cope
Updated: Feb 11
To begin with, I think intrusive thoughts are something ALL parents should be made aware of, particularly because of how common and potentially distressing it can be. Becoming parents can be a joyful, yet anxious time. At least 70% of parents develop what’s called intrusive thoughts which only serve to exacerbate anxiety levels!
What are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted/unpleasant thoughts or images that automatically pop up into our minds. When it comes to intrusive thoughts that parents may have, the theme usually is harm coming to their baby (caused by them or not). Here are some examples of intrusive thoughts that new parents have experienced which they have shared with me:
-dropping their baby (down the stairs is particularly common!)
-falling asleep and smothering their baby
-knives falling and harming their baby
To share a little of my personal experiences (as I’m human too!), I became a new Mum just over a year ago and I experienced all of the above examples. In addition, my other favourite intrusive thought was a bird of prey swooping down into my garden and carrying my baby away. It’s amazing how creative the mind can get!
If Lots Of People Have Them, Why Are Only Some Affected?
Intrusive thoughts seem to cause some to feel distressed, and can even lead to some becoming debilitated, whereas for others there is little or no impact. What are the reasons for this? WELL, it all depends on our responses to such intrusive thoughts. Let’s look at two scenarios for two different people who experience the same intrusive thoughts around dropping a knife onto their baby:
Thoughts: This is significant, as I’ve had the thought it may mean I do actually want it to happen, I’m going mad by having such thoughts and if I’m going mad I may actually be likely to harm my baby.
Feelings: Anxiety, Stress, Panic, Guilt
Behaviours: Always hide knives away, only use very blunt knives or don’t use knives at all
Thoughts: Oh that’s a weird thought, but this is a normal thought that lots of people have, I know that I don’t want harm coming to my baby
Behaviours: Carry on with my day
As can be seen, our thoughts and behaviours in response to such intrusive thoughts determine the impact that intrusive thoughts have. But the vicious cycle does not stop here. In scenario 1, as the intrusive thoughts have been interpreted as significant and threatening, this gives them power. The brain doesn’t tend to just forget threatening things, it will then be hypervigilant to this ‘threatening’ situation which will make it more likely that intrusive thoughts will pop up again in future and emotional responses will be stronger and stronger each time they are responded to in such a way. When this vicious cycle occurs it can lead to an increased level of distress and it can have a significant impact upon a person’s life. A diagnosis of OCD can be given if it escalates to this point.
Another reason why some individuals go on to become troubled by intrusive thoughts is because of certain traits that they possess (this isn’t to say if you are troubled by intrusive thoughts you will have all such traits), such as:
· Having previous significant anxiety difficulties e.g. OCD
· A tendency to take on lots of responsibility
· Striving for an excessive amount of control
· Low self-esteem e.g. low confidence in abilities, question yourself lots
Tips on How to Cope with Intrusive Thoughts
Challenge Appraisals of the Intrusive Thoughts. Once you recognise an intrusive thought has entered your mind, identify the appraisals you are having about such intrusive thoughts. Then question/challenge any negative appraisals. For example, if you have the thought “I’m a bad parent for having such thoughts” say to yourself; these thoughts are normal, everyone has them, they only have meaning if I attach meaning to them. Research shows that having intrusive thoughts around harm coming to your baby makes it no more likely that you will actually cause harm to your baby intentionally – remind yourself of this piece of evidence!
Intent. This concept is important. Some people think that if they have intrusive thoughts it means they are a horrible/bad person and they must want it to happen. BUT for a thought to materialise into an action you must have the intent to want such a thing to happen. So to further help you to challenge your appraisals of the intrusive thoughts, ask yourself; do you have the intent or desire to act upon such thoughts? I’m guessing for most of the people reading this the answer will be no. Reassure yourself that, therefore, because you lack the intent there is no reason to think that just because you have intrusive thoughts doesn’t mean you will act upon the thoughts.
Move Attention On. Hopefully by practicing the above two points, when intrusive thoughts appear you can more easily and quickly reach the conclusion; these are just intrusive thoughts and they are just thoughts. This might sound strange but you can bring in a bit of humour here (please note, by bringing in humour I am not suggesting you mock yourself, but humour can reduce the threat mode in the brain). Once you can say to yourself thoughts are just thoughts, say to yourself; “cheers mind for having this thoughts, but I’m not going to pay attention to you” and then move your attention on. To help you to move your attention on try to focus on three things you can see, hear, smell and feel. Perhaps get up and do an activity but complete it mindfully i.e. as you are doing the activity try to do it slowly and pay attention to the details in your different senses e.g. if you are washing up notice the temperature of the water, notice how heavy/light the plate feels, really look at the bubbles of the washing liquid, smell the washing liquid. When attempting to move your attention on in such ways, if your mind returns to the intrusive thoughts again, simply follow the same steps; say “cheers mind” and move your attention onto the details in the here and now.
Address Behaviours. Watch out for your behavioural responses when you have an intrusive thought. As mentioned above, the way we respond to our intrusive thoughts affects the amount of power we give to them which determines how frequently they pop up again in the future. If you let your intrusive thoughts dictate what you do, you are giving yourself the message that the intrusive thoughts are significant. Try to drop any behaviours that, although may be providing relief in the short term, they are maintaining your anxieties in the longer term. Here are some common behaviours to watch out for and refrain from doing:
· Reassurance seeking
· Overly checking things e.g. baby’s breathing
· Avoiding things due to the intrusive thoughts e.g. not using knives
For new parents reading this, I hope you have found these tips helpful. Remember, it can be a challenging time caring for babies/young children. Remind yourself of all the things you are doing well, give yourself less of a hard time for the things you perceive you are not doing well and do not compare yourself with others. You do NOT need to strive to be a perfect parent, just a good enough parent!
If you are struggling with intrusive thoughts/OCD, whether they are associated with being a parent or otherwise, and you would like some therapy to support you to put tools into place to overcome them, feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org or complete the webform. I offer therapy in-person in St Albans/Hertfordshire or online.