Let’s Talk About Intrusive Thoughts

Let's Talk About Intrusive Thoughts -postpartumprogress.com

Trigger Warning: This post deals with Intrusive Thoughts. If you are struggling, fragile, or easily influenced by reading the intrusive thoughts and obsessions of others, please avoid reading this post. For those who choose to stop reading now, I want you to know at the very least that you are not alone. The thoughts eventually quiet and fade, becoming less like rambunctious uncontrollable toddlers and more like almost well-behaved teenagers (ie, pushing the limits every so often but mostly listening to you).

In the meantime, if you’re not up for this piece, go watch this: The official video for the 2015 Climb Out and see the survivors and fighters who aren’t giving up on any mother still fighting. [PS: You can now register for Climb Out of the Darkness 2016!]

Intrusive thoughts, y’all. They’re the bane of so many a new mother’s existence. And yet, we do not talk about them. We still whisper about them, afraid that if we say them out loud they might jump out of our heads and become real, like the monsters and creatures in the Goosebumps series. And nobody wants to have a bunch of creepy monsters running free, right?

There are a few hard and fast rules about intrusive thoughts I realized on my own as well as through researching Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They are:

  • Most intrusive thoughts are brief and fleeting. They come and then they’re gone. Like a butterfly perching on your finger. Not nearly as beautiful, but they don’t stay long.

  • You are immediately horrified by the thought perched in your head. This is a healthy response. It doesn’t mean you will follow through with the thought in your head. It’s a sign of being grounded, actually. It’s when you aren’t horrified by the thoughts that you should seek immediate help.

  • The thoughts fade. For me, the analogy I like to use is that of listening to a song. They start quietly. Then they build to a loud crescendo, eventually cresting, then sliding down into silence. And just as songs are all different lengths, so is the healing process for every woman experiencing intrusive thoughts.

You want numbers about Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the disorder on the spectrum most commonly associated with Intrusive Thoughts? (Postpartum Anxiety can also include intrusive thoughts). According to Postpartum Support International’s fact page on Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, 3-5% of new moms will experience PPOCD. However, it’s most “misunderstood and misdiagnosed” according to their page as well. I definitely had PPOCD but was diagnosed officially as experiencing a Major Depressive Disorder. Nope. Not what I had, but thanks for playing, doc.

I put on a mask to hide the thoughts swirling about in my own head. It was as if I had my own trippy, horror movie marathon running in there. My thoughts centered on knives, as were those of several of the mothers I spoke with. Here’s the thing about these thoughts: When you’re caught inside them, it feels as if you are being swallowed whole, a sentiment echoed by Deborah Rimmler, a member of the Board for Postpartum Progress’ nonprofit.

Despite financial resources and access to care, I was still afraid to be with my child. Postpartum OCD -postpartumprogress.comFor Deborah, her thoughts, also centered around knives, started just a few days after she gave birth. She was desperately afraid to be alone with her child and mentioned she was grateful to be fortunate enough to arrange her life so that she didn’t spend a single moment alone with her child until he was at least two. She spent time with him, of course, but made sure that there was always, always someone else with them because she was unable to trust her own brain.

Can you imagine? I can, and I will tell you that it is indeed a special level of hell, particularly when society tells you that maternal instinct will kick in; it will enable you to love and adore your child. Oh, we love and adore our children. We’re just constantly scared as hell about what our brains are telling us to do to them—or to ourselves. Frankly, it’s exhausting.

Intrusive thoughts, however, according to Deborah, “…are not based in reality. It is a pathological symptom of a disease.” She’s absolutely right. They are symptomatic more than anything else. Being scared like hell of them is a sign of sanity, and one many of us hold onto like hell because in our broken brains, that fear? Is the one thing standing between us and a complete break. It’s so difficult to let go of that fear, which is most certainly a barrier to healing fully.

We talked, Deborah and I, about how healing from intrusive thoughts has two stages.

Stage 1 allows you to mute the thoughts, let them fade into the background. Stage 2 is more like PTSD, where we recover from having experienced the thoughts in the first place. It’s a tough recovery, and one we work on for the rest of our lives thanks to the “normal” mom worrying gene. You know, the one that makes you worry about every little thing that can possibly go wrong with your kid or your life. Letting go is key for us once we have healed. We must force ourselves to trust not only ourselves, but those around us as well as society. And that? Is hard.

The dangerous part of intrusive thoughts lies in the shame and stigma still attached to them. Mothers are often frightened to admit they are experiencing them. Why? What happens if your child is harmed? Child services shows up to take them away, right? Our logic is flawed when we are sick, so many of us strongly believe that if we go to someone and tell them we have had thoughts in which we see ourselves harming our children, of course they will take away our child because that’s what needs to happen to keep them safe, right?

Truth be told, that’s the last thing we need to happen. Why? Stress makes intrusive thoughts even worse for so many mothers. One of the things I did when I talked with my therapist any time I needed to talk about my intrusive thoughts specifically, was to ask her what she was required to report and what would trigger a report. I would then talk around those, which, yeah, probably not the best thing to do but in my mind? I was protecting my family.

Another dangerous issue at hand with intrusive thoughts is traced to the sensationalism by the media of Postpartum Psychosis. Postpartum OCD feels very similar to the way Psychosis is described. But. When you are fighting OCD? You are grounded. You are horrified by your thoughts. You are not delusional. You’re holding onto sanity with everything you have.

With Psychosis, these “thoughts” become your reality and you are moved to act upon them, consequences be damned (or even scarier, consequences seem to be a relief/escape). Postpartum OCD is not a medical emergency BUT should absolutely be treated by a professional as soon as you feel yourself starting to spiral. Postpartum Psychosis, on the other hand, is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS a medical emergency and should be treated as soon as possible.

That’s it for today, ladies. I have a LOT more to say so be sure to come back tomorrow for the second part of this post, when we get into the nitty gritty of the range of Intrusive Thoughts with a few tough mamas and what they’ve done to cope with them. Until then, know that you aren’t alone and that it’s okay to talk to someone about these thoughts.

About Lauren Hale

Lauren Hale tells it like it is about Perinatal Mood & Anxiety Disorders over at My Postpartum Voice. She is also the founder of #PPDChat, an online Twitter & FB Community dedicated to supporting moms on their journey by harnessing the power of the Internet. You can find her on Twitter @unxpctdblessing.

Tell Us What You Think


  1. Thanks so much for sharing on this topic. I suffered terrible ITs at the beginning of my PPD journey. I wrote about it here if you’d like to read: https://thebutterflymother.wordpress.com/2015/05/10/intrusive-thoughts-horror-movies-in-my-mind/

    L x

    • Deborah Rimmler says:

      Your post on IT’s is so amazing, if such a thing can be said about such a dreadful topic. Yet, I believe that every Mom who speaks openly about this horror show helps take away the power of those thoughts to mean anything other than we had a mental illness. I can relate to all of it and never tire of sharing other mom’s experiences. Every one helps me heal a little bit more.

  2. Rebecca Smith says:

    I completely understand Stage 2. I still feel like this. PTSD. I think about the time I had the thoughts and what that felt like. It is 100% like a flashback. Also, the media is TERRIBLE at their portrayal of mentally ill mothers and I find that it makes me feel like I will get worse again.

    Thank you for this post. It speaks STRONGLY to me.

    • (Hugs) PTSD is a tremendously long and frustrating stage, isn’t it? Holding you as you navigate your way through it.

      Yes, the media is TERRIBLE at their portrayal of mentally ill mothers. So stigmatizing. Sensationalism, unfortunately, is the story du jour and what lines the pockets. So…facts be damned, fear be magnified, and boom. It hurts my heart so much to see things misreported/sensationalized. Please remember that YOU are in charge of you, no one else. You. And you know what? YOU can do this.

      XOXO –


  3. This is a good article, but I disagree with the two stages. While many moms probably can mute the thoughts until they gradually fade, many others cannot. The thoughts hover like a dark cloud, causing panic attacks and anxiety. What those moms need to do is stop fighting the thoughts. The key to overcoming any OCD is to stop trying to control the intrusive obsessions by compulsive behavior or, in this case, fighting them. By letting them come and facing them head on, your mind eventually realizes they aren’t reality. Trying to ignore them or push them aside tells your mind that they are important and dangerous, thereby magnifying them even more. As a matter of fact, moms with intrusive thoughts who might be triggered by your article need to gradually read it and let it trigger them. Facing those thoughts and triggers will help shrink the hovering cloud. A great book that explains this is The OCD Workbook. There are wonderful sections about post partum OCD.

    • The name of that book is actually The Mindfulness Workbook for OCD.

    • Thank you for sharing your point of view, Lynn. I appreciate varying insight into how things can be handled from different perspectives. The key here, however, is to allow moms to deal with their own issues in a manner which best fits their own capabilities, resources, and beliefs. Some moms may not be able to to face the thoughts head on, in fact, it may scare them even more to do so. Many mothers I have talked with in the more than 7 years that I have been doing advocacy work have often shared with me that distracting from the thoughts has worked best for them vs. letting the thoughts magnify and grow. But again, I appreciate your insight and the suggestion of a resource that some may find helpful.

      All the best,

  4. I need help with my mind

    • Can someone help me with this

      • Heather King says:

        Elijah, can you please be more specific? What’s going on? How are you struggling? Intrusive Thoughts?

        It takes professional help, so please reach out to a doctor or a therapist if you can. That’s the start. You can get better.

        Peace to you!


  1. […] I wrote “Let’s Talk About Intrusive Thoughts.” Today? I’ve intertwined stories from moms (including myself) who have all experienced […]

  2. […] my recent pieces about intrusive thoughts here at Postpartum Progress (which you can find here and here – please use caution in clicking over as these are both potentially triggering […]