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Intrusive thoughts do not make you a bad mother

Intrusive thoughts are not bad

If you’re a new parent and have ever been plagued by disturbing thoughts or images that unexpectedly flash through your mind, rest assured that you’re not alone. These intrusive thoughts, although unsettling, are actually quite common during the postpartum period. To shed light on this phenomenon, we consulted experts in perinatal mental health who shared important insights for new parents and their loved ones. In this article, we’ll explore what intrusive thoughts are, their prevalence, how to discuss them with your partner, and when to seek help if they start to interfere with your daily life.

It’s part of Postpartum

During the postpartum period, intrusive thoughts manifest as distressing and unwanted thoughts or images. Dr. Jacquelyn Knapp, an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine, describes them as frightening and often visual in nature. These thoughts can trigger guilt and shame in mothers and birthing individuals, who may question their suitability as parents for having such thoughts. However, perinatal mental health specialists, including Paige Bellenbaum, a licensed clinical social worker and founding director at the Motherhood Center, emphasize that intrusive thoughts are incredibly common and not necessarily indicative of a Postpartum Mood and Anxiety Disorder (PMAD).

Bellenbaum recommends the book “Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts: A Healing Guide to the Secret Fears of New Mothers” by Karen Kleiman as a valuable resource for normalizing conversations about intrusive thoughts. By understanding that these thoughts are prevalent among new parents, individuals can navigate the challenges of early parenthood with greater ease. Bellenbaum emphasizes that most mothers experience what she calls a “scary intrusive thought” at some point, highlighting the normalcy of this experience.

Don’t fret, be open to discuss it

Yes, intrusive thoughts are entirely normal after pregnancy. In fact, they are more common than the baby blues, according to Bellenbaum. It is estimated that around 80% of new mothers experience intrusive thoughts. However, due to the accompanying shame and guilt, many individuals choose not to openly discuss their experiences. This silence perpetuates the sense of isolation that new parents often feel when confronted with intrusive thoughts. Perinatal mental health care providers are actively working to normalize these experiences and help new moms understand that their thoughts are part of a widespread phenomenon. The peak occurrence of these distressing thoughts typically happens around eight weeks postpartum.

If you find yourself experiencing intrusive thoughts after giving birth, it’s essential to remember that you are not alone. Although your experience may not be unique, it is still significant and deserving of attention. Once you realize that many other parents have gone through similar challenges, both Bellenbaum and Knapp encourage you to reach out for help and support. Knapp emphasizes the importance of not struggling alone, as these thoughts can hinder your ability to fully engage with and enjoy your baby.

You are not alone, ask for support

Seeking supportive care can begin by reaching out to your obstetric provider or primary care provider, especially since you often maintain close contact with them during the first few weeks postpartum. Midwives or postpartum doulas can also provide a sympathetic ear and offer valuable resources for support. However, Knapp acknowledges that some healthcare providers may dismiss these thoughts as common new mom anxiety, which can be disheartening. In such cases, it is crucial to explore other options and consider consulting a mental health provider.

When caring for a newborn, it may feel overwhelming to initiate help-seeking, but both Knapp and Bellenbaum suggest confiding in a partner or close friend who can support you in reaching out to appropriate support networks. Determining when to seek additional support can be challenging, given the prevalence of intrusive thoughts. However, Knapp explains that functional impairment is a crucial factor to consider.

Watch out for these red flags:

  • Thoughts preventing you from sleeping while your baby sleeps.
  • Difficulty connecting with or being present for your baby, and an inability to enjoy time with them.
  • Frequent irritability toward your partner.
  • The severity of intrusive thoughts prevents you from allowing others, including your spouse, to care for your baby.

If you find yourself in any of these situations, it’s important to seek relief and not assume that only you can keep your baby safe. Transitioning from a mindset of self-sacrifice to one that embraces the support of a village is crucial for your well-being. Remember that there is a wide range of support available, from understanding parents who have been through similar experiences to local perinatal mental health care specialists. Your OB-GYN or healthcare provider should be able to guide you toward professionals specializing in maternal mental health care. Additionally, organizations like Postpartum Support International offer a 24/7 crisis line and free online support groups.

It’s a biological phenomenon

The underlying causes of intrusive thoughts in new mothers and birthing individuals remain unknown. However, Knapp explains that biological processes play a significant role, even if the exact reasons are unclear. Maternal instincts and the protective nature of mothers are observed in various animal species. Maternal brain imaging studies indicate changes that likely have adaptive value, enabling mothers to recognize danger and perceive potential threats to their babies. MRI studies also reveal changes in the maternal brain, with areas correlated with social cognition expanding while others decrease in volume. These changes are believed to be an evolutionary response to readily perceive threats and recognize distress signals from the baby. Therefore, intrusive thoughts during the postpartum period are likely related to these processes.

It’s important to understand that the changes in your brain and the intrusive thoughts you experience do not make you a bad parent. They are simply part of the normal experience of being a new parent. Remember that you are not alone, and these thoughts will pass. Help and effective treatments are available if you need them. If you are struggling, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone who will understand and support you through this challenging time.

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