By Christopher Mogan, Charles H. Elliott, Laura L. Smith

One particularly poignant experience of fearful responding occurs in obsessive thoughts of being aggressive or harmful to someone precious to you. When a loving mother is tortured by explicit sexual or violent thoughts towards her child, she feels so bad about herself that she worries about every aspect of mothering.

Wasn’t I unsure about whether I really wanted a child in the first place? Was I giving up on things I really wanted because having a baby was the expected thing?

Because she feels so much uncertainty, she finds herself reviewing over and over specific moments in her dealings with her baby that bring more worry and preoccupation.

The distraught mother finds it hard to believe that she can’t control her thoughts, even those she considers horrible, because they just pop in and out of her mind quickly and they are so ‘not her’. Anxious and stressed parents find such thoughts so abhorrent and the very opposite of their devoted care for their child.

The working model for overcoming anxiety emphasises that anxiety is managed with specific strategies. You mind is a random thought generator so you’re flooded with thoughts of all kinds — whether happy, weird, funny, sad, angry or inspiring.

Many different thoughts can be in your mind, and anyone can get quite a shock at a thought they have. A good analogy for this is having a really bad nightmare and telling a friend you hardly slept. Yet when asked what the nightmare was about, the common response is, ‘I don’t remember, I was just so relieved when I woke and knew it was just a dream.

So when these ideas disturb or worry you in a persistent way, don’t be afraid to mention this to your sensible friends, or your medical/nurse support team.

Young parents face many challenges, and trying to do all they can to meet every need of their child. It’s not surprising that upsetting thoughts create such anxiety in parents already adapting to the disturbed sleep, the busy routines and the constancy of being a parent. Anyone can get confused as a result of agitating anxiety. Such anxiety creates uncertainty, conflict, self-doubt and fear.

Here are some ideas that might help:

  • Thoughts come and go in our minds. Just because you think or feel something very vividly doesn’t mean it’s true. There are thoughts in your mind that might be 100 per cent imaginary, yet easily understood in dreams or daydreams.

    Let such thoughts just ‘be there’ without paying attention to them. Direct your attention elsewhere very deliberately, and do so repeatedly whenever your attention moves towards these unwanted thoughts.

  • Mindfulness training increases your awareness and focus on present moment functioning — ‘How am I processing this?’, ‘Am I reacting with uncertainty and fear?’, ‘How can I sense instinctively what is ‘self” and ‘not self’?’

  • The thoughts in your mind aren’t evidence of what you are. You simply can’t control the thoughts you have.

  • You don’t run your life on fearful responses, rather you run your life on knowing what’s important to you — your values — and understanding that it’s the uncertainty and self-doubt that causes the distressing worry some mothers feel in the example at the beginning of this article.

    This is a well-understood symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The parent that doesn’t have OCD might find this kind of thought ‘pops in’ and ‘pops out’ as it’s easily dismissed by them. It’s very clear an anxious mother with this kind of obsessive thought can learn to effectively manage such rogue thoughts.