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

54 Days postpartum

23.08.21

My daughter was on her way to bed last night when out of nowhere panic hit me full force. My son, lying in the crook of my arm, suddenly started to spit milk out from the sides of his slow flow teat, and I realised, the hand that was holding his bottle was shaking. I felt hot, from the feet up, like a flush, my brain scrambling for grounding thoughts that just couldn’t make their way to the forefront of my mind. It’s coming I thought, knowingly.

My husband comes when I call, and holds me tight. Our son, bewildered at why he’s suddenly had his bottle snatched from his mouth, our daughter, obliviously cleaning her teeth in the bathroom above our heads. Breathe Shaun tells me. Why am I like this???? I sob, trying to catch my breath. You’re not like anything, Steph. It’s a panic attack and it will pass. He reassures me, never letting me go.

It’s been 54 days since I gave birth. Our son will be 8 weeks old on Thursday 26th August.

This isn’t a birth story, because my birth story is too long, the trauma that surrounds my pregnancy will not shrink into an Instagram caption or a rushed blog post. This is a progress report.

When my son Kaiser was born, and during the days preceding, I was in a constant state of panic. I would have moments of calm, but they were fleeting and hard to grab onto. I’ve plateaued at a panic attack approximately once a week now. I know that a large part of their occurrence is directly linked to hormone sensitivity, yet that gives me no control or reassurance regarding their assault on my life.

I’m currently under the care of the most amazing perinatal mental health team, they are some of the best medical professionals I have ever come across in my entire life and I’ve met a few. Sadly this support was massively lacking during my pregnancy – but that is a story I’ve semi already told and one that would take up the duration of the rest of this blog. The point, is that I have some amazing people in my life at the moment helping me heal from acute anxiety, intrusive thoughts and various states of panic. I genuinely don’t believe without their consistent support during the postpartum period, that I would have gotten these bastard attacks down to once a week on my own.

The trouble is, I’m still very much in a state of fight or flight. During the periods of calm, I am logical. In fact I am probably calmer than I’ve ever been in my life and generally laid back (a term probably not often used to describe me as a person) but I can’t stay there, because as quick as I’m calm, a storm cloud opens up the heavens on my head and I am ready to flee the country as though I’m being chased by a hungry tiger.

However, during those moments of calm I have reflected. I have corrected, and I have made changes to my mindset. Living with chronic illnesses as I do, migraine, fibromyalgia, PMDD etc it’s easy to become all consumed by pain and suffering. The shift in my mindset has been that I don’t want to be consumed by this suffering anymore. I know I am going to suffer, bad days, sometimes bad weeks and maybe even bad months, but I don’t want it to consume me. I want change.

My community nurse said to me this week you have to do different to feel different and so I’m doing different. Every day I’m fighting tiny fires of fear. For example, I’m frightened of being alone with my kids in case I have a panic attack, but I’m staying alone with them anyway, because I know if I avoid this fear it will only grow.

I was absolutely distraught about Shaun returning to work after paternity leave, but I knew if he delayed that process I would be as scared, if not more so, when he eventually did.

I’ve been avoiding books and television that might be triggering or that contain storylines of anyone with mental illness, but very slowly I’m reintroducing those things into my life.

I’ve been too afraid to walk or drive anywhere on my own because of how much pain I’m in. What if I get stuck with the kids? And then what if whilst I’m stuck, I panic?

I’ve been too scared to enjoy days out for fear of repercussions on my body, or to go places more than half an hour away from my house in case I panic and need to flee, but slowly I am doing both.

I’m making this sound easy, and yet it’s been the hardest most hellish experience ever, doing things I’m so desperate to avoid goes against the grain. But I’m using these examples to measure my progress, because it’s so easy to feel as though I’m making absolutely no progress at all when anxiety strikes.

I want change. I want my life back. And I have to do different to feel different. I have to be open to the idea there are positive outcomes in life, because if I don’t open myself up to this possibility, I will forever be living half a life.