By Juli Fraga and Karen Kleiman|July 5, 2020
"Soon after her first baby was born in 2014, Crystal McAuley started having catastrophic thoughts about her infant’s health. Throughout the day, random thoughts popped up like tiny speech balloons, each one filled with a newfound fear: “What if the baby overheats?” “What if he stops breathing?” “What if he falls out the window?”
McAuley, 38, shared her concerns with her husband, who told her the baby was healthy. His reassurance, however, didn’t shut down the worry-filled thoughts that looped over and over in her mind. “It was hard to make them stop,” McAuley recalled. And then they changed course: “I started having visions of pulling my car into the opposite lane of traffic, but I didn’t want to die or harm my infant.”
McAuley was experiencing intrusive thoughts, which are unwelcome, negative thoughts, or images that seem to come out of nowhere and are highly upsetting, psychologists say.
“Occasionally, everyone experiences senseless intrusive thoughts,” said Jonathan Abramowitz, Ph.D., a professor of clinical psychology and an anxiety researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On a turbulent flight, for example, we may see images of the plane crashing, even if we’re not afraid of flying. If we’re driving a friend’s new car, we may have thoughts about getting into an accident.
Most times, we don’t give those thoughts much attention, but when stress arises and responsibilities mount, it can be harder to ignore them, Dr. Abramowitz explained. And with the added strain of the Covid-19 pandemic, many parents are preoccupied with worries about their children becoming ill and dying from the virus, he said.
McAuley said the pandemic has sent her anxiety into a tailspin. “I feel like a new mom again. At unpredictable times, I imagine one of my children falling down a steep ravine or dying in a violent accident.”
While intrusive thoughts can be a sign of a perinatal mood disorder, such as postpartum anxiety or postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder, a 2006 study conducted by Dr. Abramowitz and his colleagues followed 85 participants (43 mothers and 42 fathers) from the second trimester of pregnancy to three months postpartum. Of those who participated in the study, 91 percent of mothers and 88 percent of fathers experienced upsetting intrusive thoughts about their newborn.
According to Dr. Abramowitz, it’s not uncommon for new parents to think of the baby falling down the stairs, choking or drowning in the bathtub. One parent told Dr. Abramowitz he imagined “sticking a pencil in the soft spot of his baby’s head.”
Disturbing thoughts and images like these can bewilder new parents. Not to mention, mothers who envision harming their babies may misinterpret their thoughts as ominous signs about their mothering abilities. “I felt like a prisoner inside my own mind,” said McAuley, who worried that if she told her doctor what she was thinking, her baby would be taken away.
While intrusive thoughts can be terrifying, the problem lies in how we interpret them, Dr. Abramowitz said. Labeling such notions as “negative” causes the brain to give them more weight, which is why parents who judge their invasive thoughts often struggle to let them go.
Dr. Abramowitz and his colleague, Nichole Fairbrother, Ph.D., a psychologist and researcher at the University of British Columbia, said intrusive thoughts pop up in new parenthood for a reason. In their research, the psychologists found that the immense responsibility parents feel for keeping their newborns alive can bring on disturbing thoughts about harm striking their babies, especially during the first six months of their children’s lives.
Dr. Fairbrother said: “I remember gazing at my baby’s delicate hands and thinking, ‘I could just cut those right off with the garden clippers,’ but because I’m an anxiety researcher, I wasn’t upset by it.”
Even though intrusive thoughts might seem puzzling, Dr. Fairbrother said, they’re often adaptive. “If a mother worries about the stroller rolling into traffic, she’s going to grip the handle more tightly,” she explained.
For parents bothered by their intrusive thoughts, certain exercises and steps can reduce the anxiety they create. A few suggestions:
Distance yourself from the emotions
One way to disarm intrusive thoughts is to recognize that they don’t define who you are. Repeating the bothersome thought in a singsong voice or saying it aloud, over and over again can help, said Stefan Hofmann, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and anxiety researcher at Boston University. This behavioral technique, known as distancing, can unhook thoughts from emotions, helping the mind to change direction. No longer seeing the thoughts as a threat, parents begin to realize that “thoughts are nothing more than just thoughts,” Dr. Hofmann explained.
“A mother may think about pushing the stroller down the stairs, but that doesn’t mean she’ll act on it,” he said."
June 17, 2020| Produced by Meg Dalton| Hosted by Tanzina Vega
"As the coronavirus pandemic continues, some experts worry about the impact it will have on the mental health of new parents, especially those who have recently experienced childbirth. According to the American Psychological Association, one in seven people who have given birth experience symptoms of postpartum depression.
For more on this, The Takeaway spoke to Kelly Glass, a freelance journalist whose interests focus on the intersections of parenting, health, and race. She recently wrote about the mental health toll on new parents for The Washington Post.
Check out our ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic here.
Click on the 'Listen' button above to hear this segment. Don't have time to listen right now? Subscribe for free to our podcast via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts to take this segment with you on the go."
By Cassie Shortsleeve| May 6, 2020
"This is Real Women, Real Bodies: Your destination for trusted health and wellness advice, reflecting the untold experiences of people like you. This month, we’re exploring maternal mental health, including the myths and misconceptions surrounding motherhood.
As soon as she delivered her daughter in 1983, Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Orange County, CA knew something was terribly wrong.
She started seeing horrifying images of someone stealing her newborn, a nurse suffocating her baby, or she envisioned herself dropping her baby, seeing the head smashed and blood on the ground.
When she returned home with her daughter, even innocuous objects around the house — the microwave, a vacuum cleaner cord, the dishwasher — seemed like potential weapons. Every 15 seconds or so, she’d imagine someone or something hurting her baby. Worse, with little, horrifying video clips on replay in her mind, she’d see that she was the perpetrator.
She didn’t tell her husband what was happening. She didn’t tell anyone what was happening. Instead, she spiraled into deeper, scarier thoughts. Her pain continued for years. “I missed the infancy and toddlerhood of my firstborn,” she tells InStyle. “It was just one long nightmare."
When she experienced similar symptoms after having her son a few years later, a psychologist made her feel even more scared and confused by making incorrect assumptions about her own childhood, predicting a negative bond for her and her baby. Her ob-gyn dismissed her experience as normal.
She gave up trying to find help. This would be the rest of her life, she assumed. She became suicidal.
What Bennett didn’t know at the time — what she came to understand in years to come — is that she was suffering from postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the most misunderstood and misdiagnosed of the perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs)."
By Pooja Lakshmin|may 27, 2020
"New and expecting moms are facing pandemic-related fears on top of social isolation."
Photo: Mikyung Lee
"After going through a harrowing bout of postpartum depression with her first child, my patient, Emily, had done everything possible to prepare for the postpartum period with her second. She stayed in treatment with me, her perinatal psychiatrist, and together we made the decision for her to continue Zoloft during her pregnancy. With the combination of medication, psychotherapy and a significant amount of planning, she was feeling confident about her delivery in April. And then, the coronavirus hit.
Emily, whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, called me in late-March because she was having trouble sleeping. She was up half the night ruminating about whether she’d be able to have her husband with her for delivery and how to manage taking care of a toddler and a newborn without help. The cloud that we staved off for so long was returning, and Emily felt powerless to stop it.
Postpartum depression and the larger group of maternal mental health conditions called perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are caused by neurobiological factors and environmental stressors. Pregnancy and the postpartum period are already vulnerable times for women due in part to the hormonal fluctuations accompanying pregnancy and delivery, as well as the sleep deprivation of the early postpartum period. Now, fears about the health of an unborn child or an infant and the consequences of preventive measures, like social distancing, have added more stress.
As a psychiatrist who specializes in taking care of pregnant and postpartum women, I’ve seen an increase in intrusive worry, obsessions, compulsions, feelings of hopelessness and insomnia in my patients during the coronavirus pandemic. And I’m not alone in my observations: Worldwide, mental health professionals are concerned. A special editorial in a Scandinavian gynecological journal called attention to the psychological distress that pregnant women and new mothers will experience in a prolonged global pandemic. A report from Zhejiang University in China detailed the case of a woman who contracted Covid-19 late in her pregnancy and developed depressive symptoms. In the United States, maternal mental health experts have also described an increase in patients with clinical anxiety.
In non-pandemic times, as many as 14 percent of women will suffer from pregnancy-related anxiety, which refers to fears that women have about their own health and their baby’s over the course of pregnancy and delivery, and up to 20 percent of women will experience postpartum depression.
Samantha Meltzer-Brody, M.D., M.P.H., who is the chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the director of the Center for Women’s Mood Disorders, said, “The natural vulnerability of this major life transition is exacerbated when you just have sort of global anxiety, and things like going to the grocery store to pick up diapers suddenly become a much more anxiety-producing event than it ever was before.”
In my clinical practice and in a Covid-19 maternal well-being group I co-founded, women have voiced their fears about a number of possible distressing scenarios: delivering without a support person; being one of the 15 percent of pregnant women who is asymptomatic for Covid-19 and facing possible infant separation; and recovering during a postpartum period without the help of family or friends to provide support. There’s also grief about the loss of a hopeful time that was meant to be celebrated with loved ones."
By: Karen Kleiman
"The awesome responsibility of caring for a newborn naturally warrants a heightened sense of vigilance. Sometimes this necessary state of watchfulness can be confusing. At every turn, a new mother believes a crisis is looming. Afraid of slipping and dropping the baby, she holds them extra tightly while she goes down the stairs. Afraid of a disaster in the night, she keeps herself awake to hear the silent sounds of breathing. If she falls asleep from sheer fatigue, she dreams of causing the baby harm through her own negligence.
Here are some reasons why postpartum women don't share these scary thoughts:
1. The ambiguity factor
One reason why postpartum women don't talk about the thoughts that are having is that they are not sure what is "normal" and what may be problematic. This is due to the overlapping experiences between women with postpartum anxiety or depression and women with no such diagnosis.
For example: fatigue, loss of libido, moodiness, weepiness, changes in weight, sleep disturbance, and low energy can all be attributed to anxiety and depression, yet they are also considered to be within normal expectations for postpartum adjustment. Because moods and other internal experiences are expected to fluctuate following childbirth, women sometimes decide it is best to brave any discomfort and hope it goes away by itself.
Unfortunately, scary thoughts are not easy to ride out. What's more, without proper assessment, a woman's worry about these thoughts can rapidly disintegrate from initial concern to panic.
2. The critical inner voice
The shame that can accompany upsetting thoughts is unbearable. What is wrong with me? How can I be thinking these things? Good mothers don't think such terrible thoughts. Often, the only explanation that makes sense to a mother who is trying to reconcile this disturbing experience is that there is something profoundly wrong with her, something is broken inside. Maybe she is close to insanity. Or maybe she is not fit to be a mother. Either option, or anything in between, is a nightmare. This nightmare stuns many women into silence. They hope that if they can just hold their breath and carry off this role-play, their awful thoughts will somehow go away. In some instances, the thoughts actually do go away. Usually, they do not.
Other women tirelessly try to push the thoughts out of their minds, but are distraught when the thoughts return in full force. Some women can express the horror of their thoughts along with the abysmal shame that accompanies them, but, for many, the actual articulation of the specific thoughts, the words they fear would somehow make the thoughts come alive, remain locked inside.
Women say they are embarrassed, ashamed, mortified, humiliated and guilty beyond description. They say they feel hideously exposed, naked, repulsive, raw, nauseous, ugly and sickened by their own thoughts. Some say they feel so appalled by the nature of their thoughts that they feel inhuman, as if only a monster could possess and admit such atrocities.
An important point here is that high level of distress indicates that the scary thoughts are ego-dystonic, or incompatible with the woman's sense of herself. Although it is never easy to experience such high levels of distress, there is considerably more concern when a woman expresses no such distress or displays no strong affect attached to this worry. Thus, a woman's agitation is often a signal that anxiety is the mechanism at work and not something more worrisome, like psychosis. Knowing this can reassure both the distressed mother and her healthcare provider.
Shame-based barriers to disclosing one's thoughts can be fueled by the critic inside one's own head. With regard to the critical inner voice, mothers report they are reluctant to reveal scary thoughts because they: