Why do intrusive thoughts happen?

By Sophie Slosarczyk

EVERY mum (in fact, every parent and every none parent) experiences some form of intrusive thoughts in their lifetime. It’s just not many people talk about them.

I experienced them big time when I suffered from postnatal anxiety, and they haunted me for a long time. Deeply distressing thoughts about me rolling on top of my gorgeous baby while he sleeps. Visions of dropping him down the stairs. Nightmares which woke me full of panic, sweating, heart racing, in tears. Sudden vivid scenes of the pram rolling down the hill while on our afternoon walks and being hit by a car.

The more these thoughts came into my head, the more I thought about them. Like we all would. And every so often nowadays, these thoughts do pop into my head like annoying little bubbles of fear.

As mums we naturally want to do what’s best for our babies, to love them unconditionally and protect them from harm. But when a vivid intrusive thought comes in, it deeply affects us.

We’ll likely feel helpless and scared of what we’re thinking. Embarrassed maybe. We won’t want to tell anyone for fear of what they’ll think of us. We’ll bottle it up, say nothing and hope the thoughts don’t come back.  And in some women it’s a rare occurrence. They don’t cause a problem because they’re not frequent enough. 

But in others, they do cause a problem. They’re hurtful, heartbreaking, scary, and the worst thing? They make us question our mothering abilities. 

I say this from personal experience because it’s what happened to me. I’ve always wanted to be the best mum to my children. So these thoughts are the last thing I wanted. In fact, although I was diagnosed with postnatal anxiety after my first son was born, I still didn’t talk about having these intrusive thoughts.

This post is the first time I feel brave enough to do so. 

Researchers have found that up to 90% of new parents experience them. 90%!! That’s a huge portion of parents. I still think it’s higher than that personally. Some women are able to mind hack their way out of the thoughts, to push them aside and ignore them. Yet many mums take these thoughts to heart and want to do whatever it takes to prevent a scenario happening out of the thoughts. 

This was me. I was obsessed about the health of my baby, and about my health too. I didn’t want to leave the house in case one of the thoughts came true. Some mums aren’t even able to cuddle their baby for fear of suffocating them, all because of these thoughts.

Intrusive thoughts which affect daily life can be a feature of an anxiety disorder or postnatal depression. And what I wish to do with this article is offer my reassurance here in saying that these intrusive thoughts are not a reflection of you as a mother and as a woman. 

If you’re getting upset by these thoughts, that’s a good sign because it means you recognise them as a threat. You realise they’re not you.  

You don’t want to have them. 

You want them to stop

Below I share what I did at the time in response to my intrusive thoughts.

Whenever one popped into my head, I practised a simple technique which I call ‘the flip’ which is something I now teach extensively in my anxiety coaching practise. As soon as I recognised the thought, I flipped it. I thought of the happiest, best possible outcome I could imagine. 

And I repeated this. Day in, day out. I never stopped. 

I just practised and practised. Each intrusive thought instantly got switched off, and I chose a new thought instead. I had affirmations posted everywhere around my house reminding me to do this with my anxious thoughts. I forced myself not to listen to them. Not to let them upset me. Not to picture them so vividly. 

The truth is, we can’t control what thoughts pop into our heads, and especially in the postnatal period our hormones play a big part in how anxious we may feel, and in having these thoughts in the first place. Because we’re a new mum we’re in hyper protection mode of our babies and these thoughts represent a worst case imagined scenario.

Biology dictates this to us. We’re literally wired to be on high alert. Protecting our little one at all costs. What we need to start doing with these thoughts is learn to not listen to them. Learn to flip them like I did, or tell them to F the F off! Learn to not let them have so much power over us. 

And most importantly, we must not be afraid to open up and talk about them if we’re finding them too much. We’re certainly not alone. No anxiety sufferer is ever alone.

If we opened up and talked about our worries, we’d find understanding and empathy, support and guidance on how to help ourselves.

If you’re experiencing intrusive thoughts please remind yourself that these thoughts do not represent anything real. They’re only thoughts and you have the ability to choose a different thought. You can flip that thought right round as soon as it enters your mind. 

Do check out my Busting Anxiety In Motherhood programme which would really help you if you’re struggling to handle intrusive thoughts.

I’m here if you need support or if you have any questions. Feel free to email me at [email protected]

Sophie Slosarczyk

Sophie Slosarczyk

Healthcare professional, writer & blogger. Full time Mum of two baby boys. Loves nothing more than a hot cup of tea (rarely happens these days) and a real heart to heart.

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