Coping with scary thoughts as a new parent

Dr Erin Bowe birth trauma

May 12, 2023

We all have weird thoughts. Really, honestly, we all do. 90 percent of all new parents will have intrusive thoughts. They stem from the fact that we are biologically wired to scan for danger and keep our babies safe.

Take a breath and some comfort in knowing you’re not alone if you’re only just learning this for the first time. We all have seriously weird thoughts. Some of us simply have more awareness of them and give them more attention than they deserve. Every single one of us has weird thoughts, and probably thousands of them a day. They even have a technical name: ego-dystonic thoughts. ⠀⠀⠀⠀

I know Freud didn’t always deliver the most feminist, empathic or human-centred ideas, but one of the most reassuring concepts I’ve ever learned can be credited to him.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
1. Ego-syntonic thoughts are the ones that are consistent with or acceptable to our ego. They can be boring thoughts like ‘I need the toilet’, ‘I might go get a sandwich’ or pleasant thoughts like ‘that’s a cute baby’.
2. Ego-dystonic thoughts are ones that are inconsistent with, or unacceptable to, our ego. The ones we’d rather not share. Ever. The ones you think you will take to your grave because living with the secret shame is better than possibly being taken to the loony bin.

Everyone has these weird ego-dystonic thoughts, it’s a matter of awareness, frequency and what meaning you put behind them.⠀⠀⠀
‘What if I drown my baby?’ is a common one. When my babies were tiny, I frequently had dreams about accidentally drowning them, and I sometimes felt anxious during bath time. I think it’s no coincidence that many parents describe the postpartum and early parenting period as ‘feeling like I’m drowning’. Giving meaning and emotion to thoughts (particularly distressing ones) and telling yourself not to do so seems to have the effect of telling your brain to produce more of them (ironic process theory).[i]

Generally speaking, if you’re aware that the thought doesn’t make sense, you recoil from it or reject it (e.g., you know you’d never deliberately let go of the pram in traffic) then it’s an ego-dystonic thought.

The best you can do with it is validate it to yourself as normal, and maybe try some diffusion techniques with a bit of humour say to yourself “oh, hello sneaky thought, I see you!” or trying singing the thought or saying it in a silly voice. I practise a distancing technique where I use the phrase ‘I’m having the thought that…’ while acknowledging what strange thought has come into my head.

Look for it and you’ll notice children are way more open and expressive with their ego-dystonic thoughts—until we teach them to suppress them, and perhaps feel shame about them.

Having weird thoughts is normal. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have a diagnosable mental health condition. It doesn’t mean you are a serial killer. Such thoughts tend to pop up when we’re exhausted, hormonal, emotional and vulnerable. However, it’s like feeding seagulls: the more attention you give them, the more you try to make them mean something, the more the thoughts are likely to increase.
Not every single thought we have is meaningful or profound. Our brains produce an awful lot of junk thoughts, just as computers and other devices display weird error messages or surprise us with strange bugs. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

Despite what I’ve just said, if you’re really worried, or afraid you’ll act on your thoughts, or they are interfering with your day-to-day life, it might mean you could use some extra support.

If the thoughts are constant and are preventing you from being able to live life as you would like, please don’t try to will them away on your own. If these thoughts get intense and frequent and/or are accompanied by ‘safety behaviours’ like having to wash your hands repeatedly, repeating phrases or actions to ‘prevent’ the bad thing from happening (‘compulsions’), this can be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Find someone who understands the ins and outs of weird thoughts. Google psychologists who have experience in perinatal psychology and/or obsessive-compulsive disorder. You may not have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but someone who is experienced in that area is potentially going to be a safe person for you to reveal your thoughts to. A huge concern of new parents is that expressing thoughts of harm to themselves or their baby means child protective services will be called and their baby will be taken. There is a huge difference between having thoughts and acting on thoughts.

Avoiding downtime to keep scary thoughts at bay

I know for a fact that sometimes Mum will actually avoid self-care and downtime because it triggers the thoughts. Being alone can give the brain a green light to let out all sorts of crap that we suppress when we’re  with our children. This is part of releasing the mental load that so few people talk about – I also think this is why some mothers are sometimes resistant to self-care and meditation.

I find a lot of my clients need to reframe what they think ‘meditation’ means. Being alone with your thoughts trying to sit still is ONE way to meditate.

Dancing, walking, using your hands to make or sort something methodically or creatively might be a better way.

Don’t be afraid of your Shadow work. The work of defragging the mum-brain may not feel instantly rewarding. For some of us, the act of ‘busy work’ – writing lists, rushing around and being frazzled for the sake of it can serve as distraction from these unpleasant experiences. That is, so long as you are busy doing all the things, avoiding downtime, then you don’t have to deal with the scary thoughts that might creep in.

I’ve met many mums who crave time away from their baby, and yet when they have it, they suddenly feel anxious and full of terror. Remember, humans are dynamic; we can hold conflicting emotions at once – even extreme ones. For example, you can be in desperate need of time alone, and want to appreciate it, yet be overwhelmed by weird and scary thoughts in the silence.

Learning not to be ‘on’ all the time is a practice. Have self-compassion if you secretly hate being alone with your thoughts and avoid self-care as a consequence.

Note: Psychosis is different to this. It’s a rare, but it is considered an emergency. With psychosis a person is experiencing  a break from reality and no insight as to where the thoughts are coming from. The thoughts will seem like they make sense and should be acted on. The person won’t be able to distinguish between a “scary thought I just had, but it’s clearly coming from my own mind” versus “a voice or something outside of me commanding me to do something”. Psychosis and delusions often take on a persecutory and/or religious tone.


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