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."