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9 Things New Moms Need to Know If They're Struggling With 'Scary Thoughts' Right Now

What if I get sick and can’t take care of my baby?

What if my baby gets sick?

What if my partner gets sick?

How do I do this all alone?

Being a new mother is hard.

Being a new mother during a pandemic is almost unimaginable. One of the things we have learned — thanks to increased awareness and the circulation of good, accurate information about maternal mental health — is scary, negative intrusive thoughts about harm coming to the baby are a stressful but common expression of normal anxiety. Almost every single new mother and most new fathers experience the presence of scary thoughts that can range from mildly annoying to excruciatingly painful and debilitating.

It may be hard to distinguish between “normal scary thoughts” and those triggered by the current extraordinary stressors associated with sheltering in, isolation, quarantining, social distancing and all the other mandates that are imposing gut-wrenching restrictions. It stands to reason new mothers today are bombarded on a moment-to-moment basis with negative thoughts that may feel out of control, never-ending and often shame-inducing. After all, we often hear, “How can a good mother think these thoughts?”

But good mothers do have these scary thoughts. Awful thoughts. Terrifying thoughts. Indescribable and unfathomable thoughts. And if these moms do not find the support and validation they need, the thoughts can swirl around in their heads, gaining momentum from the fear. Anxiety is at an all-time high right now, for good reason. It’s scary outside and some new moms understandably feel out of control with anxiety. When the anxiety emerges within the context of having a new baby, it often manifests as specific thoughts about something horrible happening to the baby. By accident, or by intent. The guilt and worry can be excruciating.

Information and knowledge about the nature of these scary thoughts can empower women and help them feel more in control. New moms need to know:

1. Scary thoughts are a very common symptom of postpartum depression and anxiety, but can also be present in the absence of a clinical depression and anxiety.

2. Scary thoughts are negative, repetitive, unwanted, intrusive thoughts that can bombard you at any time. They can come out of nowhere.

3. Scary thoughts can range from mild to unbearable.

4. Scary thoughts can come in the form of thoughts (“What if I burn the baby in the bathtub?”) or images (picturing the baby falling off the changing table).

5. Scary thoughts can be indirect or passive (something might happen to the baby) or they can imply intention (thoughts or images of you throwing the baby against the wall).

6. Scary thoughts are not indication of psychosis.

7. Scary thoughts can be part of a postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) diagnosis or they may occur in the absence of a full-blown diagnosis.

8. If you have a history of OCD or tend to be a worrier or describe yourself as overly analytical or a perfectionist, you may be at increased risk to experience this symptom. Then again, you may have no history of any anxiety symptoms.

9. Scary thoughts will often make you feel like you’re a “bad mother.” They can make you feel guilty and ashamed. Try not to beat yourself up about this. You are not your thoughts. Remind yourself it is a symptom. It is not who you are.

Helpful Resources

New moms tell us they feel enormous relief when they hear other moms experience these thoughts, too. This is why The Postpartum Stress Center (PPSC) launched the #speakthesecret campaign a few years ago and created a forum in which moms can anonymously submit their scary thoughts. Women report they feel extremely supported by this and their anxiety reduces when they begin to understand this is a common and normal response to anxiety and overwhelming distress. On the PPSC Instagram account (@postpartumstress), these #speakthesecret submissions are posted with comic faces depicted by artist Molly McIntyre who illustrated Karen Kleiman’s newest book GOOD MOMS Have Scary Thoughts. This book is helpful resource for moms to find support for their scary thoughts as portrayed through relatable characters, speaking those very thoughts. During this time of constant uncertainty, new moms need this support to help manage the pervasive anxiety that is invading their precious space. Knowledge is indeed empowering.

Additional tips for managing anxiety

1. Understand that the anxiety will not hurt you and the discomfort is temporary.

2. Accept there will be extraordinary levels of anxiety right now.

3. These thoughts are not associated with any action being taken. Having a scary thought, no matter how scary, does not increase the risk of harm coming to your baby.

4. Try to rely on strategies that have helped you in the past.

5. Let someone you trust know how you feel and what you are thinking. It will help diminish the power the thoughts hold over you.

6. Remember you are not your thoughts. These are symptoms. They are not about who you are.

7. Distract your brain. It really works!

  • Books
  • Coloring books
  • Music
  • Dance
  • Art
  • Walk
  • Drink water / eat something
  • Shower/bath
  • Phone call
  • Sit in the sunshine
  • Breathe deeply/slowly
  • TV/movies
  • Phone games
  • Pets
  • Puzzles

8. If you feel your distress is too high and you are unable to get through the day, let your health care provider know how you are feeling.

9. Therapists who specialize in perinatal mental health can provide amazing support through teletherapy during this uncertain time. If you need help finding someone who is trained, contact Postpartum Support International or The Postpartum Stress Center.

Struggling with your mental health due to COVID-19? You’re not alone. Check out the following articles from our community:

Getty image by Elena_Garder