Intrusive thoughts during the perinatal period

Some people when they hear the words intrusive thoughts automatically assume that the person experiencing said thoughts is hearing voices. Some people think OCD and others believe intrusive thoughts to be a sign that a person is bad and will act on their thoughts.

With the exception of possible OCD, none of the above tend to be true.

So what are intrusive thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are unwanted and or distressing thoughts that are often reoccurring. They are likely to leave the thinker very upset, distressed, disgusted, confused and ashamed.

It is thought that 1 in 5 women and mothers will suffer perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, and 57% of those will have experienced intrusive thoughts. Mental health professionals are not entirely sure why more women in the perinatal period experience intrusive thoughts, but it’s believed to be related to a variety of hormonal, environmental, and emotional factors. That said it’s a common symptom of PMADS. Typically, the thoughts that occur in the PP (perinatal period) are fears that surround our children, ‘What if I harm the baby?’ But the thoughts don’t always stop at physical harm and can relate to sexual fears too.

To be clear before you read on, suffering from intrusive thoughts is NOT a reflection on a person’s character, desires or beliefs. The thoughts themselves go against all of our beliefs and natural instincts as mothers and do not align with our values hence the very word for them being ‘intrusive.’ We don’t want these thoughts, we can’t bear them and it’s the very reason we are left feeling as though they are ruining our life.

During pregnancy with my second child I became overwhelmed with intrusive thoughts, some of them too weird and harrowing for me to share —though in some ways I wish I felt I could share them all, then maybe they wouldn’t consume my brain— It got so bad that at just shy of 38 weeks I was hospitalised and my labour was induced, whilst I was medicated for my mental health.

After my son was born and I was again assessed by a psychiatrist, she told me thoughts that are harmful or as mentioned sexual in nature are the most common type of intrusive thoughts during the perinatal period. I asked her why this was, and she gave me a fantastic analogy.

You have this tiny human to care for. It’s your most important job, above any other. The thoughts that you are having are in direct conflict with your own anxieties about what could happen to your child. The thoughts are the very things you want less than anything in the world to happen.

But how do you know I’m not just a psychopath? I asked.

‘Because psychopaths don’t phone me up hysterical about upsetting thoughts, Steph. That’s how I know you pose absolutely no risk to your children.’

At this stage I felt so out of my mind I didn’t know if I posed a risk to my children. I felt like I couldn’t think straight. But Dr Pysch was adamant about this, and though it didn’t ease the thoughts initially it helped me to understand I wasn’t alone and other women and new mothers went through this too. She then went on to say (I feel like this is a big one…) the only person you pose a risk to, is yourself with your judgement about the thoughts.

I found that particular line about judgement really interesting because I realised quite quickly that it WAS the judgement that was keeping me in a cycle of constant fight or flight.

I was overthinking every single thought and if I dared speak out about my thoughts, rather than feel better all I did was worry about other people’s judgement instead. That was until I met the most wonderful community psychiatric nurse. For the purpose of this blog I’m going to refer to him as Neo (He will appreciate the reference.) Neo has changed the way I think about intrusive thoughts, but more importantly the way I feel toward opening up about them.

Maternal OCD is a mental illness that affects women in the perinatal period and includes intrusive and obsessive thoughts followed by compulsions completed in order to relieve some of the discomfort from the thought. Ironically for me, my most intrusive thoughts were about convincing myself I had, or was going to develop severe mental illness (the irony isn’t lost on me) I first believed I was developing psychosis and felt disassociated often, then I believed I was suffering from severe OCD despite not having any compulsions.

When I discussed this with Neo he went through a protocol of having me fill out an OCD assessment and we discovered that yes I have obsessive and at times disturbing thoughts, but I don’t have the compulsions in the same way a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder might. So why did I feel as though talking about my fears meant I was constantly reassurance seeking?

The truth was there may have been an element to seeking reassurance, but for the most part I was doing what I needed to do, engaging in therapy and discussing my fears.

Once I finally opened up and said aloud that one of my biggest fears was I didn’t want to be alone with my baby because I was terrified I would have a psychotic break and murder him whilst he slept, I was not only able to then unpack this thought and see it with clarity for what it was, just a thought. But I also learned that I’m not alone, not even a little bit.

The mind plays tricks on all of us occasionally and thoughts are the perfect segue into us believing we are not good people and therefore convincing us we’re unworthy of the love we so desperately NEED to give ourselves particularly in the early stages postpartum.

If we all talked about our deepest darkest thoughts we might be less bothered by them, but there is so much assumption and stigma attached to thoughts. People believe that if you think something you must feel it. With intrusive thoughts it’s the exact opposite.

The vulnerability of a woman who has just been through childbirth is like no other time in her life, the fear that we feel is immense. I know I personally believed if I told the truth about my thoughts immediately postpartum that my children would be taken away and I would have been sectioned.

You don’t have to open up about every thought in order to dismantle their hold on you though, you can put in to practise strategies and use them for all thoughts that cause you distress.

Neo recommended a book for me to read during the early stages of recovery and it’s called The Happiness Trap and is written by Australian doctor, Russ Harris.

In the pages of the happiness trap Harris provides tools to defuse yourself from negative thoughts and the book itself centres very much on acceptance. It took me a while to come round to the idea that I would ever accept distressing thoughts, but the idea is not to engage with them, just to accept them for what they are, random mental events and words. I won’t say I’m cured, because that would be a lie, but I’m working towards how to better manage intrusive thoughts and not allow them to take over my life.

Dr Russ Harris The Happiness Trap

If you’re suffering from intrusive thoughts in the perinatal period I would urge you to talk to your doctor. I know it’s hard, you may be feeling judged and terrified, but I promise you the road to recovery starts when you learn that you are not alone with these thoughts.

Other organisations that can provide help during the perinatal period are:

Included at the bottom of this page is a link to ‘Buy Me A Coffee’ (or book, in my case) please don’t be put off by this! 
Currently, Divamum makes no money, and whilst I love writing, in order to keep growing I have decided to accept donations.
Just to clarify you are in no way obligated to make a donation and at no point will this become mandatory, it’s just there as an optional extra for anyone who would like to and all information is available via the link.

https://www.buymeacoffee.com/Divamumsteph

Mothership Writers Workshop Review

I first heard about Mothership Writers when my daughter was around three years old. I’d been writing my blog for some time and was looking for inspiration as well as guidance in the form of a writing workshop. Mothership (unfortunately for me back then) caters to new mums with babies two and under, so I had initially missed the boat. However, I kept in touch with Emylia Hall, founder and novelist via Instagram and when I found out I was pregnant with my second baby I immediately sent her an email asking to be on the list for updates on the next available course. I joined Mothership Writers when my son was ten weeks old and I’ve just recently completed the eighth and final workshop.

What is Mothership Writers?

Essentially, it’s a creative writing course that walks the attendee through various writing styles, but in reality it’s so much more than that. Mothership caters to women in the early stages of motherhood creating a sense of solidarity and openness you can’t find in your standard baby group, or indeed creative writing course.

Emylia’s teaching style is encouraging and heartfelt, she creates a safe space for mums to pour over their experiences with words, evoking powerful emotions and allowing the attendee to experience a full and wholesome sense of catharsis. The course is made up of eight hour long sessions and a whole host of information you can’t get from simply Googling ‘how to be a good writer’…. Emylia instils a sense of pride and ownership in us mums during each workshop and it’s obvious from the very first session she’s fully invested in our individual stories and writing success.

During lockdown 2020 Emylia curated the book Born In Lockdown a fantastic collaboration of fragments from over 250 authors, all of which are women who experienced pregnancy or became new mothers during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The book is free to download with donations accepted for SANDS the leading stillborn and neonatal death charity.

All graphics and illustrations by Esther Curtis

Course layout

The hour long weekly workshops take place over zoom and are always initiated with a head emptying exercise AKA brain dump. An exercise which I have found so useful that I’ve continued to do it outside of the workshops. The session is then broken down into writing exercises and group discussion, always starting and ending with an influential poem. Some of the best poems I’ve ever heard have been introduced to me during a Mothership session!

Though the course is designed for mothers, writing craft is very much in focus during the workshops and Emylia delves into writing styles, including character creation and story structure. The hour always flew by, but I always came away feeling like I’d got loads of writing done and the sense of achievement coupled with inspiration after a session is great soul food.

The really great thing, (or rather one of them) about Mothership Writers is, you don’t need to have ever written before to benefit from the course. It’s designed for all writing abilities and I feel that anyone, with or without writing experience will benefit from the course and Emylia’s kindness and knowledge.

The level of insight Emylia gives regarding the various ways in which there are to write both creatively and expressively, is a true testament to her own writing success.

Emylia Hall, founder of Mothership Writers and Author of The Richard & Judy Bestseller, The Book Of Summers.

My Personal Experience

After being admitted to hospital at the end of my second pregnancy because of a rapid and terrifying decline in my mental well-being, I had zero desire to write. I’m a person that usually writes in order to ‘hear myself think’ and writing has many a time been a form of therapy for me, during pregnancy I often documented my honest, but not always positive, experiences. Once my son was born though, the intrusive thoughts I was experiencing felt too raw and too heinous to get on the page and I just didn’t have it in me to write, about anything. Mothership Writers gave me both inspiration and clarity over my thoughts. Listening to other mums express in their own words their personal experiences helped me to open up, it also gave me inspiration to write about the positives. It helped me articulate and put into words the tiny nuggets of joy that occur daily in motherhood. The joys that are so often overshadowed by our darkest times in the early stages of parenting. I am so humbled and grateful I was able to attend a Mothership Writers course during my recovery from perinatal mental illness, because I genuinely believe the course itself to have been a powerful recovery aid for me. I loved it so much, I’m deeply sad that it’s over, but I know I’ll stay in touch with Emylia and the Mothership crew via social media.

VerdictCannot recommend the course enough, for all mothers keen to explore their creativity through writing!

Image of my dog Frank and Son Kaiser during a Mothership session!
  • For more information on Emylia and her latest writing projects follow her author page Emylia Hall IG