[Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from a therapist and mom who experienced intrusive thoughts, which she likes to call worst case scenario thoughts. It’s really a great way of explaining what intrusive thoughts look and feel like! -Jenna]
Its 3:44. My husband called at 3:06 to tell me he was walking home from the office. I asked him to pick up some bananas. It’s only a ten minute walk and the grocery store is right outside of our apartment building. I feel my breathing start to quicken and before I know it I see it in my head. The worst case scenario. He was hit by a car while he crossed the street. The grocery store was robbed by a guy with a gun. I push it away and tell myself I won’t call him until 4:00, and that is when I will start to allow myself to panic. At 3:56 he walks in the door explaining he got a work call and wanted to finish it before coming in the door.
These are what I like to call my worst case scenario thoughts. As a person who has struggled with anxiety for most of my life, they’ve always seemed to linger in the recesses of my mind. For years if I received a call from my parents after nine o’clock at night, I was convinced that something terrible had happened to them. I had to take a deep breath before I answer the phone and hurriedly say, “What’s wrong?”
These thoughts aren’t always about safety but can be worst case scenarios in other ways. A ‘C’ on a paper in graduate school launched me into a panic attack because I was convinced it would lead to me flunking out somehow. A small part of me is motivated by these thoughts. Sometimes I feel as if as long as I imagine the worst case scenario I somehow have control over it from happening. They are automatic and although I feel that I can gently push them away and find a positive distraction I am still fighting the shame I feel about having them in the first place.
After becoming a mother they started happening more frequently and the toll they took on me became heavier. Many times they were surrounding my son’s safety, health, and whether or not I would make a mistake that would somehow cause him harm. At times they caused a deeper fear that seemed almost paralyzing to me.
I would describe these intrusive thoughts in detail but I have learned that when you do those that are exposed to them may adopt them as well. Intrusive thoughts can almost be contagious. If you suffer from them and hear other examples it starts to play out in your mind. Our thought catalogues of worst case scenarios must stay as small as possible. But even as I have worked on them and started to find positive ways of coping with them with distraction, deep breathing, and rational thinking these worst case scenario thoughts sometimes affect the way I see myself as a mother. I don’t want to be the mother that holds her son back because she imagines the worst case scenario in every situation. But sometimes I am that mother.
Even as a therapist who is passionate about fighting the stigma placed on mental health issues, these are thoughts I never wanted others to know I had. I really believed for a long time that I was the only one that experienced them. And I judged myself over and over for having them. Who thinks these kinds of horrible things? What kind of mother could possibly visualize horrific things happening to her child? I feel selfish for having them because I still have the luxury of only experiencing them in my mind. Others have not been so lucky and have experienced these worst case scenarios in real life. Why can’t I count myself as lucky and just enjoy that things are okay in the moment?
As I’ve come to understand anxiety from a personal perspective and from a therapist’s point of view, I have realized I am not unique in experiencing these types of thoughts. There are many others out there that feel invaded by these thoughts and have even more difficulties than me in bouncing back from them. When I lead support groups or read other moms’ struggles with anxiety, I know I am not alone. We are not alone. None of us are truly alone in this experience. If we normalize that we all have these dark thoughts then we are fighting the stigma and shame and allowing ourselves to start letting them go.
So I remind myself that I am not my thoughts. I may have dark thoughts, judgmental thoughts, irrational thoughts, ridiculously bizarre ones but they are just thoughts. I never judge my clients, my family, or friends for the thoughts they share with me. I find them to be brave for being vulnerable enough to say them out loud. So I deserve the same acceptance and compassion. These thoughts do not represent me. I am so much more. I am the supportive words I give to friends, the acts of love I show my family, and the values I try to live by every day. I am the getting out of bed despite the thoughts that want to tell me not to, the taking a deep breath before telling my son ‘no’ for the 33rd time despite the thoughts that tell me to scream at him, and the waiting til 4:00 before I start to call the police to report my husband missing.
You are not alone. You are not crazy. You are not your thoughts.
Rachel Bowers is a mom, social worker, maternal mental health advocate, and writer. She blogs on emotional wellness at Full Motherhood. She is also the co-founder of a free online mentoring program for moms focused on personal development called Mentoring 4 Moms. She currently lives in Melbourne, Australia with her partner and 2 year old son.