This is a post that I’ve wanted to write for a while. Before I go on, I want to start with a bit of a disclaimer. As any of you who have read my About section will know, I am a Clinical Psychologist in my day job. Whilst this post is therefore written with a bit of knowledge, it is mainly written from a personal perspective with personal reflections, not professional ones. That said, I hope that it provides some help for anyone who may be bothered by their intrusive thoughts.
It’s estimated that 94% of the population experience intrusive thoughts: that is unwanted thoughts, images or ideas that pop into your head, sometimes seemingly from nowhere. I experience them all the time. My most frequent is thinking I haven’t locked my car (every. single. time.) but I have had some more upsetting ones too. My husband seriously considered never flying with me again when I told him I had the intrusive thought of opening the aeroplane door – during the flight. I’ve had thoughts of sticking my foot on the accelerator whilst waiting for people to cross the road, and of swinging my car off a bridge. I frequently have thoughts of jumping in front of oncoming trains. Now, before any of you get seriously concerned about my risk to others or myself, I want to re-assure you: just because I have the thought, doesn’t mean I want to act on it. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In my experience, my intrusive thoughts are the worst thing I could imagine happening. The things that scare me. My internal reaction when I first had them was one of horror and anxiety. But over time, and partly through my training, I learned that a thought is just a thought; it is something I have little control over, and trying to block it out will only make it worse. So whilst I don’t find them particularly pleasant, nor do they overly distress me.
I noticed an increase in my intrusive thoughts when I had my first child. Truly horrible thoughts, generally involving hurting her in some way, for example, throwing her over the banister or over my shoulder. They were scary and I hated them. What sort of mother was I? Did I want to hurt my child? What would people say if they knew? What I have noticed is that they have reduced as she has gotten older and more self-reliant. Reflecting on this, I have realised that the increase in my thoughts was probably due to the increase in my anxiety about caring for this tiny, vulnerable, helpless little thing. Somebody that was totally dependent on me (and her dad) to care for her. And that comes with a whole heap of responsibility. I think my intrusive thoughts were about my worst fears of something happening to her or me failing her in some way.
But it has made me wonder if other mothers (and fathers) experience them too – and what they do with them. Because whilst I didn’t like the thoughts, I knew rationally that I did not, and will not, ever want to hurt my children. I knew that what was coming into my head were thoughts that I had no control over, and they were distressing precisely because I didn’t want to act on them.
But what if you don’t know this? What if you’ve never heard of intrusive thoughts? Let’s be honest, it’s not the sort of thing you’re going to speak to your health visitor about (although probably should be) and I doubt very much that it’s something you’d talk to friends about for fear of judgement. So what do you do with them? Do you dismiss them as ridiculous? Or do you spend hours questioning yourself, your parenting, your love for your children – do you become increasingly anxious, guilty, ashamed? I imagine for some people it is the latter. Whilst post-natal depression is increasingly being recognised and understood, I’m not sure the same can be said for post-natal anxiety. It is one of the reasons I wanted to write this post. I wanted to share my experience with others, so they know that they are not alone. So they know that just because they’ve had one of these thoughts does not mean they want to act on them. And having a thought like this does not make it more likely that it is going to happen.
Since I first shared this post, I have had a few people ask me how I know I will never act on my intrusive thoughts. And the simple answer is because I choose not to. There is a difference between thought and action. Intrusive thoughts are generally unwanted thoughts; we are not in control of whether we experience them or not. But we are in control of whether we choose to act on them or not.
If you are concerned about your intrusive thoughts, maybe a first step would be to talk to your friends about it – you might be surprised about how common they are. I think that shame and fear stop people from opening up, but I honestly think if more people talked about it – admitted that they too have experienced similar thoughts – then the less stigma there would be. If the intrusive thoughts are impacting on your ability to function and on your behaviour, then I strongly recommend you speak to your health visitor or GP – it is nothing to be ashamed about and help is out there. You can also find useful information at Anxiety UK which details the different forms of post-natal anxiety, and OCD-UK.
I hope this post has been helpful.