My experience of postnatal depression was largely rooted in intense anxiety. This is the second of three posts about the worst of my anxiety-induced symptoms (insomnia, intrusive thoughts and derealisation/depersonalisation) and how I managed or overcame each of them.
*Please note this post contains reference to disturbing intrusive thoughts that may be triggering for some, please proceed with caution*
This is the hardest post I’ve written so far. Generally, I’ve found writing this blog to be very therapeutic. I’ve found it quite easy to be honest about the symptoms and thoughts I’ve struggled with, some would maybe say too honest! But this is more difficult; this is about awful, frightening, unwanted thoughts that plagued my mind for many months. Violent images would assault my brain at regular intervals and leave me questioning who I am.
But I feel I must speak out about this. It’s a symptom of anxiety that isn’t always readily spoken of, a symptom that brings so much shame and despair, so if me writing it down here gives even one fellow sufferer comfort then it’s worth my minor discomfort about admitting it.
Intrusive thoughts for me fell into several categories: something happening to my baby, existential thoughts about life and death, hurting myself and, worst of all, hurting my baby. There is nothing more frightening and distressing than having a thought which makes you question, at worst, your sanity and, at best, your moral fibre.
I can’t remember the first time I experienced, what I now know as, intrusive thoughts. In my memory I feel like I had them ever since Caterpillar arrived but I think it’s more likely they began around the time that insomnia began eating into my mental wellbeing. That was certainly the first time I began thinking about dropping my son. The bottom of my stairs is tile and during those sleepless weeks I experienced very vivid images of stumbling and dropping him to the hard ground. I have always had a powerful imagination and when I say these images were vivid I mean special effects, HD, technicolour bloody vivid. I would think of it every time I came up or down the stairs, or even passed the foot of the stairs. I would imagine the event and I’d see the aftermath too. This wasn’t helped when one morning I actually did stumble down the last couple of steps whilst holding my baby, hurting my foot in the process. My husband couldn’t understand my hysterics, I’d only bruised my big toe. I begged him to stay home from work, saying it was because I couldn’t walk properly, but in reality it was because I felt I needed someone to be there to stop my son plummeting to his death. I had many other worries of this nature but, upsetting as they were, I was at least able to brush them off as the combination of my worrier nature and powerful imagination.
As PND got worse, and the anxiety grew in intensity, the thoughts turned much darker. I’d read years before about a child who had suffocated on nappy sacks and now every time I changed Caterpillar’s nappy I would eye that packet of sacks and worry that somehow my newborn son, with his limited motor skills, would reach over, take one out of the pack and place it over his head.
What if I placed it over his head?
Woah. WHAT? Where the hell did that thought come from? Oh my God, did I just imagine killing my own baby? What is wrong with me? I know I’m struggling to bond with him and I’m worried I don’t love him properly but am I that person? A child-killing psycho?!
And now I’d had the thought I was obsessed. Every nappy change my heart would race when that “what if” thought came along. Don’t think about it don’t think don’t think don’t think. But if someone says don’t think about pink elephants what the hell do you think about most? So it got worse. It spread to other things – bath times were tricky, as was crossing the road with the pram.
These thoughts increased the other, more physical symptoms of anxiety. Increased the sleeplessness and made me feel insane. I was simultaneously terrified of being “locked up” but at the same time wondered if I should be.
I also had ITs centred on hurting myself. The anxiety left me in a constant state of terror, the idea of living like this became unbearable and the concept of suicide kept flitting across my mind like a dark scary shadow. I still knew I didn’t want to kill myself but I kept thinking I would lose control and do it anyway. I made my husband take every packet of medication in a carrier bag when he left the house each morning, leaving me only my safe daily dose. I was terrified of knives, it was hard to make dinner because I couldn’t chop vegetables without thoughts of pushing the blade into me.
These thoughts blast into your mind very suddenly, and usually quite visually too for me. They completely catch you off guard. I would be going through the motions of daily life when BAM – knife, kettle, nappy sack, bus! I was obsessed with the thoughts and obsessed with “getting rid of them” but trying to rid myself only gave them more power and brought them to mind more regularly.
I spent much of this time thinking I was “going crazy.” I constantly questioned whether these thoughts were, in fact, hallucinations. I comforted myself that if I realise they aren’t real then they aren’t delusions or hallucinations by definition. So why won’t they go away?
But I did overcome them. Intrusive thoughts are one of the few areas of recovery that I now feel truly confident about managing.
The simple truth is we all experience intrusive thoughts. Discussions with my therapist made me realise that random thoughts come at us quite regularly as we go through life and it occurred to me that I’ve always had occasional odd or inappropriate thoughts like this. Have you ever been in a formal meeting and imagined leaping over the desk into the lap of the old man from Finance? Have you ever been at a church wedding and wondered what would happen if you took off your clothes and streaked down the aisle? Have you ever waited for a train and had a microsecond urge to jump off the platform? These are all examples of random, intrusive thoughts I’d had very occasionally all my life, and the sort of thing my therapist said she’d had too, she described that last example as the brain’s defence mechanism. You aren’t going to do any of these things, they are just errant, passing thoughts.
The difference between someone who is well and someone who is unwell is how you react to that thought or image. If I’d been well I would have thought nothing of those first couple of unpleasant thoughts, written them off, and promptly forgotten I ever had them. End of story.
However, when you’re anxious you fixate on the thought. You question it, analyse it, wonder what it means about you, attach emotion to it, fear it, run from it, are sickened by it. Obsess about it. And like with all anxiety, the more you worry and focus your attention on the thoughts and feelings, the more your mind thinks there actually might be something to worry about and the more it brings those thoughts and feelings to the surface. Anxiety is simply a vicious cycle of creating adrenalin when it isn’t needed. It feels terrifying but really your mind is trying to help you.
I plan to write more about how I manage anxiety in general in a future post but in terms of managing intrusive thoughts I used a simple technique recommended by my CBT therapist. When that thought enters your mind don’t run away, don’t fight against it, just sit with it. It will feel awful but I’m afraid you have to suffer that temporary discomfort to achieve the ultimate goal. Acknowledge the thought, recognise it as what it is: only an errant thought, not an action, not a reflection on who you are as a person. Then let it go, watch it drift away from you. Visualisation sometimes helps you to distance yourself from it – I imagined the thoughts as movies being projected on clouds and then I’d watch each one drifting away from me across the sky.
It’s a simple technique but it’s bloody hardwork because it takes a lot of time and practice to see results. When you are having many thoughts a day it can feel exhausting to do this every time but I promise you it worked for me. Soon it becomes second nature and much more easy to disregard them, I didn’t need the clouds visualisation after a short while, I just became more acquainted with the method of disregarding the thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts will never disappear completely, they are just part of the human mind. I still have them but rarely and when I do I’m so unbothered by them that I hardly notice or remember.
If any of this is familiar and you currently feel overwhelmed with scary or unpleasant thoughts try not to panic but please reach out to a professional. A good therapist will want you to be completely honest, will not be shocked and will not judge you. They should be able to give you useful techniques for managing these thoughts and feelings.
You are NOT your thoughts.
Need more support on this topic? You can find my video regarding intrusive thoughts and OCD here.
27 comments on “Intrusive Thoughts: Horror Movies in my Mind”
Hello, thank you for this brave and inspiring post! I have suffered exactly the same symptoms and the intrusive thoughts are by far the worst as they make you question everything about yourself and who you fundamentally believe yourself to be and make you question your own sanity. I wish more mums would talk openly about this subject as it helps to ‘normalise’ the experience and help mums suffering PND and PNA that they are not alone. K.Kitchen x
Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words. That’s the plan, it’s not easy to talk about but it’s something that needs to be out there, you know? Thanks again for taking the time to comment x
I am currently suffering very horrible intrusive thoughts. I have had bad mental health problems after the birth of my second baby and am under the care of the recovery team now. I am too scared to tell anyone how bad the thoughts are as I think they will put me in hospital if they know what I am thinking.
Thank you for replying. I know firsthand how frightening thoughts like this can be. Well done for asking for help and I’m really glad you have a team looking after you. Are you having therapy as part of your care? Talking the horrible thoughts over with a therapist helped me enormously and gave me techniques for dealing with them.
As you can see in this post, I too had thoughts as dark as any thought can possibly be and yet I still got better, even though I never thought I could. Anxiety is horrendous but treatable. You have done the right thing getting help and you WILL feel better too x
Firstly, thank you. I have shared this on my Facebook to help the people I know understand what I’m going through. Because of my thoughts it’s making me question i want to be a mum anymore which in turn makes my thoughts even scarier because I think that if I don’t want to be a mum then how do I know I won’t act on my thoughts? I’m in the care of the crisis intervention team, nurses come and talk to me but not an actual therapist. Do you think I need to suggest seeing a therapist?
Also, did you take any medication to help you through it?
Thank you again. Xxxx
You’re very welcome, I’m so pleased to hear it has helped you.
I’ve struggled with the same worry about being a mum, and the truth is, I believe a lot of mums do at times. How old is your child, may I ask? I only wondered because my son is 2 now and as he has grown our bond and my love of being a parent has grown too. It’s very difficult to love being a mum when the role mainly consists of night feeds and changing nappies! Please remember that. I believe every mum is cut out best for different areas of parenting. Personally, I suck at the baby stage and I’m only marginally better at the toddler stage but I like to hope I’ll come into my own once my son can hold real conversations and interact with me more (frankly, I reckon I could rock the teen years lol!). Everyone is different and not everyone loves being a parent every day (or even most days). Please remember that.
I did take medication yes – diazepam for short-term and fluoxetine for 18 months. I wrote about it here – https://thebutterflymother.wordpress.com/2015/04/13/perspective-pills/ if you want to know more.
Re seeing a therapist it all depends on if you feel the nurses are helping you manage your anxiety enough. I had visits from nurses as part of the PEWS programme too and they helped immensely, but the therapist was able to offer me more long term support and a different perspective. For me, therapy has been so valuable.
I hope that helps, please feel free to message me any time x
You are a brave mama for writing this and I’m so proud of you for doing it!!! I feel like I know you as we are very similar in our IT’s. PPOCD kicked my ass after my first and during my seconds pregnancy. I co-facilitate a support group in PA and most moms will talk about PPD….intrusive thoughts is a whole other ballgame! Until I bring them up….no one speaks of them. The relief I see in their faces screams “thank God it’s not just me”. Love from the US!
Thanks so much for reading and commenting. You’re right, it’s not something people feel able to speak about that easily. Great job on the support group! 🙂
Again, great post….
Intrusive thoughts are definitely what I have struggled with most as it does make u question who you are at a time when ur do vulnerable. Such a scary thing. I think deep down I knew I would never do anything but I worried if I was going to have to live my life constantly worrying about ‘what if?’ ….. It’s a horrible way to live. Thankfully I do feel much better now and the thoughts are no longer as threatening or vivid. However I am still aware of them, but more in a general sense ie – questioning if I am having any of those horrible thoughts and whether if I am thinking that does it constitute having them?! I am always aware of my thoughts now whereas prior to this I didn’t used to monitor my thoughts, I just used to get on with my life! I do miss that!!! But I’m so much better than I was…..
I think medication has helped me immensely, to be able to engage in therapy and take on board the coping strategies it’s essential to be in a place mentally where you can engage. I know when I was at my worst it was difficult to do the most basic of things let alone focus on therapy. So yes, medication helped a lot with that. And as you said, thoughts are thoughts. What determines you as a person is your actions. I always think, compare these thoughts to mini nightmares that you have when you are awake….you don’t wake up from a nightmare and beat yourself up for your mind being able to produce a horrific scene or image when you are sleeping so why would you make yourself feel bad when you have thoughts outside of your control when your awake ? We can’t control our thoughts, they are involuntary and automatic….. I have found that the people I have met who have been plagued by ITs are the nicest most gentle of people and because of their sensitivity they pay more attention to thoughts that aren’t compatible with how they view themselves as a person. It tends to happen at times of stress / major life events when the person is feeling far more wobbly than normal and is therefore more vulnerable to being effected by their thoughts….they pay to much attention to them, wonder about their deeper meanings and BAM the horrifying cycle continues . Part of ocd is that the person constantly questions whether they ACTUALLY want to do those things, whether deep down they are a Bad person…..but I can guarantee that someone who does actually carry out horrific acts would never feel anxiety,they enjoy sadistic thoughts and want to have them, whereas we are tormented by them and would do anything for them to go away! As OP says, the challenge is accepting the thoughts, letting them be there, even label them as one of those silly thoughts and then getting on with what you are doing. It’s hard but it does get easier. Good luck to u mums that are struggling. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I promise xx
Reblogged this on mommyhasocd and commented:
I feel like I could have written so much of this. Postpartum intrusive thoughts are the worst.
Thanks for reblogging x
I know this is quite an old post but thank you so much for writing it. If it’s ok could I show my perinatal cpn it as it so eloquently says exactly how my thoughts are at the moment and I’ve been struggling to put it Into words. I’ve just been discharged from a mum and baby unit as they got so bad. I just wish this hell would stop so I could enjoy my baby instead of feeling sick and unable to cope. Thank you for making me feel not quite so alone
Thank you so much for being so honest and brave in publishing this post. I’m struggling with intrusive thoughts at the moment, I had them after my first son was born and having them again 8 weeks after having my second son. I’m too scared to bath him, just in case. Seeing gp tomorrow xx
Thanks for your honesty. I can really relate to this at the moment. It’s encouraging to hear others have gone through the same and come out the other end.
Thanks, Sarah. I’m glad it was helpful x
I’ve never spoken to anyone about my intrusive thoughts. I didn’t know it was a “thing” until I read this here. I get them very badly occasionally (maybe once every 2 or 3 years) and I just cannot get the horrific thought out of my head – my mind seems on a loop, just replaying it. It is so frightening and sometimes it can last for several months. Thank you for writing about this and letting me know that it’s okay. Maybe I will be brave enough to share it with someone next time.
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Thank you for this! I’ve been struggling with this since I was pregnant – son is now 13 months. Terrible terrible intrusive thoughts as if I’m in a horror film ( I was exposed to a lot of horrific horror films when I was very young) and I think it was those that creeped up and were dormant all my life. What freaks me out and worries me – and I’ve not shared this because it sounds so weird – is what if my son turns out to be a horrible person in those scenes I see. Or what if I forget him somewhere and he is taken…And then I think may be I’m creating that by thinking about it. Am I affecting his hard wiring and does he feel the anxiety? That is my number one worry. I manage it and then it comes back. It’s been a battle and I know that the more I fight it the more it’s gonna stay.
Thank you for your message, Sandra. ITs can be so distressing but my best advice would be, to just let the thoughts come and go avoiding engagement with them as much as possible, using the method I mention in my posts might help. And to remember they are just thoughts not facts, I had to remind myself of that all the time. Sending love x