Welcoming a new baby into the world is both exciting and challenging. However, for some new parents, the postpartum period can also bring unexpected anxiety and distressing intrusive thoughts. This experience, known as postpartum OCD, can be overwhelming and isolating.
Postpartum OCD is a specific subtype of OCD that affects new parents, typically within the first few months after giving birth. It is estimated that around 3-5% of new mothers may experience postpartum OCD. Symptoms can manifest through intrusive and distressing thoughts, images, or urges that are often related to harm coming to the baby or a fear of being responsible for harm. These thoughts are distressing to the person experiencing them and go against their own values and desires. It’s essential to recognize that having these thoughts does not mean you are a bad parent or a danger to your child. Understanding this is the first step towards finding relief.
Thoughts do not always reflect our true values or desires. Thoughts can just be thoughts. Creating some distance between you and the thoughts is imperative so you can respond rather than react to them. An example of this is: “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that I could kill my baby. Wow, that feels incredibly distressing and yet I know that thoughts are just thoughts. I am going to practice allowing the thoughts and feelings to just “be” while I bring my attention back to what I’m doing.”
Reach out to your healthcare provider, a therapist, or a support group specializing in postpartum OCD. Connecting with others who have had similar experiences can provide a sense of validation and comfort. Also, surround yourself with trusted loved ones who can offer support and understanding. Share your experiences and feelings with them and ask for help when needed. Building a support network alleviates the sense of isolation and can make a significant difference in your journey.
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy is a highly effective treatment for OCD, including postpartum OCD. It involves facing your fears, while refraining from engaging in compulsions or safety-seeking behaviors. ERP therapy helps to retrain the brain’s response to these thoughts and reduce their distressing impact.
Here are a few steps involved in ERP therapy for coping with postpartum OCD:
Create a hierarchy: Work with a therapist to develop a hierarchy of triggers, starting with the ones that cause the least amount of anxiety. Gradually, you will work your way up to more distressing thoughts, taking them on one step at a time.
Exposure to distressing thoughts: Practice exposing yourself to the distressing thoughts that trigger your anxiety. This can be done through imagery, writing, or even verbalizing the thoughts in a safe environment.
Response prevention: Practice resisting the urge to engage in compulsive or safety-seeking behaviors that typically follow distressing thoughts. This might involve resisting the urge to check on the baby excessively or seeking reassurance from others.
Repeat and adjust: Continue working with your therapist to repeat ERP exercises. Over time, the anxiety associated with the thoughts will likely diminish, allowing you to regain control and reduce their impact on your daily life. Confidence also often builds that you are capable of experiencing the distressing feelings without having to engage in a compulsion to try to lessen it.
Experiencing distressing intrusive thoughts during the postpartum period can be challenging. However, it’s important to remember that you are not alone and help is available. Coping with postpartum OCD involves understanding the nature of intrusive thoughts, seeking support, and considering therapy, such as ERP, to regain peace in your life. Remember to be patient with yourself and have compassion, as you navigate this journey towards healing and well-being.
If you or someone you know is struggling with postpartum OCD, it’s essential to reach out to a healthcare professional or therapist specializing in maternal mental health for guidance and support.