Postpartum Anxiety and Scary Thoughts
What are scary thoughts?
Many people have “scary” or strange thoughts once in a while. However, if you have anxiety, these thoughts can become extremely frightening, and sometimes debilitating. These thoughts can be frightening, alarming, and make you feel as though you are losing your mind.
Scary thoughts are repetitive, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts that pop into your head at any given moment. Usually these thoughts will surface at the most inopportune time. These thoughts can be excessive worry, obsessing or ruminating over small things, or even having frightening images that come out of nowhere. The thoughts will not go away no matter how hard you try to get rid of them. You may have images or thoughts about accidently hurting yourself or your baby, and these images can turn into thoughts about “losing it,” or “snapping.” “What if I accidently drown the baby in the bathtub?” “What if I accidently drop the baby down the stairs?” Then you may start thinking “What if I snap or go crazy and purposely drown the baby in the bathtub?” “What if I am losing my mind and I will purposely throw the baby down the stairs?” or “What if I smother the baby by accident, or on purpose?” “If I think it, how do I know I won’t do it?”
These thoughts will go on and on, and may make you question your sanity. You may fear that if you told anyone about these thoughts or images, they will think you are crazy and admit you to a hospital or take your baby away from you. You are not crazy. This is not postpartum psychosis. This is anxiety. You are probably experiencing a type of anxiety known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Anxiety can do some very scary things to your mind. When someone is anxious, they can have terrible thoughts about the ones that they love. Anxiety requires an outlet that expresses itself in the form of these frightening, bothersome thoughts and images.
What is the difference between women with scary thoughts who do not hurt anyone, and those that do?
If you are upset, or even horrified by the thoughts you are having, you are most likely experiencing what is known as “ego-dystonic” thoughts, which are thoughts and images that go against your personality and what you believe is right. You are aware of your thoughts, and can articulate that you are having some scary thoughts and are upset by them. To actually harm your baby goes against your innate beliefs. You have the ability to distinguish right from wrong. These thoughts are not stimulated by psychosis, but by anxiety. It is highly unlikely that you will hurt anyone.
Women who harm their babies are out of touch with reality. “Ego-syntonic”-your thoughts and feelings are consistent with what you believe. These women are hearing voices and seeing things that are not real. These are called visual and auditory hallucinations. These women may be having serious thoughts about ending their lives and will most likely have a plan in place to do so. These women are experiencing a psychotic break, also known as postpartum psychosis (PPP), and need immediate psychiatric attention and will most likely be admitted to a facility for psychiatric treatment.
How do I know that I won’t act on my scary thoughts?
Many new mothers may fear that they might “snap” and act on their scary thoughts. If this were the case, then the prisons would be filled with people who have anxiety and OCD. The thoughts that pop into your mind will cause you much anxiety and stress, again, because they are ego-dystonic. They are not pleasurable to you or gratifying at all, and you become very upset by them. Those individuals who act on their thoughts are people who derive pleasure from them, ego-syntonic. The thoughts are consistent with their own self-image.
What do I do about these thoughts? How do I stop them?
-Getting help and treatment for your anxiety is key to stopping these thoughts. Seek out a professional for therapy and possibly medication.
-Don’t try to stop them-thoughts and emotions get stronger the more attention you give them.
-Don’t get upset or afraid of them-when you get upset, your mind recognizes them as important, and will keep sending the thoughts out. If you refuse to feed them with your own fear, they will eventually fade.
-Don’t cling to the thoughts or obsess over them, and don’t do things to avoid having them (compulsions), don’t change any part of yourself to accommodate the thoughts-think of the thoughts going through your mind as clouds passing through the sky, the sky does not change at all to accommodate the clouds.
-Remember, your thoughts are not you; they are simply sound bites.
Cheryl Zauderer has been a registered nurse since 1985. She is a nurse-midwife, a lactation consultant and a psychiatric nurse practitioner specializing in perinatal mood disorders and other women’s health issues.
Cheryl has authored her first book entitled Maternity Leave: A New Mothers Guide to the First Six Weeks Postpartum, Praeclarus Press. It is a self-help book for new mothers focusing on the first six weeks postpartum. You can follow her with her blog and on her website at: postpartumcare1.com, on twitter, and on facebook.
Cheryl has also served as a board member for PSI (Postpartum Support International) and has been the Nassau/Suffolk coordinator for PSI since 2009.