While intrusive thoughts can be terrifying, the problem lies in how we interpret them, Dr. Abramowitz said. Labeling such notions as “negative” causes the brain to give them more weight, which is why parents who judge their invasive thoughts often struggle to let them go.
Dr. Abramowitz and his colleague, Nichole Fairbrother, Ph.D., a psychologist and researcher at the University of British Columbia, said intrusive thoughts pop up in new parenthood for a reason. In their research, the psychologists found that the immense responsibility parents feel for keeping their newborns alive can bring on disturbing thoughts about harm striking their babies, especially during the first six months of their children’s lives.
Dr. Fairbrother said: “I remember gazing at my baby’s delicate hands and thinking, ‘I could just cut those right off with the garden clippers,’ but because I’m an anxiety researcher, I wasn’t upset by it.”
Even though intrusive thoughts might seem puzzling, Dr. Fairbrother said, they’re often adaptive. “If a mother worries about the stroller rolling into traffic, she’s going to grip the handle more tightly,” she explained.
For parents bothered by their intrusive thoughts, certain exercises and steps can reduce the anxiety they create. A few suggestions:
Distance yourself from the emotions
One way to disarm intrusive thoughts is to recognize that they don’t define who you are. Repeating the bothersome thought in a singsong voice or saying it aloud, over and over again can help, said Stefan Hofmann, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and anxiety researcher at Boston University. This behavioral technique, known as distancing, can unhook thoughts from emotions, helping the mind to change direction. No longer seeing the thoughts as a threat, parents begin to realize that “thoughts are nothing more than just thoughts,” Dr. Hofmann explained.
“A mother may think about pushing the stroller down the stairs, but that doesn’t mean she’ll act on it,” he said.
Notice distress and let it be
Trying to ignore intrusive thoughts and upsetting feelings only makes them louder. Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., a clinical social worker and parent coach, said acknowledge intrusive thoughts by practicing a mindfulness exercise called noticing, which is paying attention, without judgment to our thoughts and feelings as they arise.