Talking Back to Scary Thoughts
My brain is like a Stephen King novel. I do not possess anything close to his writing ability. But what we do have in common is that our main characters end up in the most terrifying circumstances.
Stephen King’s creativity allows him to develop horrific masterpieces that become bestsellers. My creativity allows me to send the people closest to me into freak accidents that eat my mind alive. The good news is that these situations only seem to occur in my head. The bad news is that they won’t go away. So I gave them a name: scary thoughts.
Scary thoughts often keep me from focusing on work and keeping up with conversations. When they arrive, they take over. I zone out, leave the room to cry or even run to my car to make sure I didn’t accidentally leave my son in his car seat. Scary thoughts have been a part of me for as long as I can remember. During pregnancy, they centered on the child growing inside of me. When his beautiful soul arrived, they intensified.
In his first few months, I checked his temperature every couple of hours, expecting it to spike. Every creak in the house led me to believe someone was breaking in. Now he’s in his second year of life, and I wake up every morning wondering if today will be the day. Maybe it will be the day he runs in front of a car. Maybe it will be the day he goes into anaphylactic shock due to an unidentified allergy. Of course, we all need to keep these possibilities in mind in order to stay safe, I just need to find balance between being a responsible parent and being overwhelmed with anxiety.
The Underlying Cause of My Scary Thoughts
No, I don’t just read too many Stephen King novels. I know my brain and have some ideas of some possible culprits of my scary thoughts.
Since I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 in my late teens, having symptoms spike during pregnancy and post-partum was not a surprise. It is common for the hormonal changes in pregnancy and birth to trigger a depressive episode in people with bipolar disorder. Various mental health professionals have told me that these are intrusive thoughts, and that they are common in people with a wide range of mental health issues. While I wouldn’t wish scary thoughts on anyone, it is helpful to know that I am not alone.
When I was 6 years old, I was hit by a speeding driver. I was in a coma for a few days, acquired a brain injury and broke some bones. I’ve always thought of this as just part of my story. Now that I am a parent, I see this incident through a different lens. In a post-partum support group, my therapist recommended trauma counseling. I thought this was silly because I hardly remember the accident, however, she believes that my unconscious mind still remembers the trauma and keeps going back there.
The maternal brain
Beginning in pregnancy, neuroscientists believe that activity increases in the parts of the brain responsible for social interaction, anxiety and empathy. These changes help attract a new mother to her baby, but also help cause over-protectiveness, constant worry and sometimes obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Unpacking these changes in the brain is helpful in understanding why anxiety and depression are so common during and after pregnancy.
Overcoming My Fears
There came a moment when I had no choice but to gain control of my scary thoughts. I had to face one of my fears: a long drive alone with my son. We were days away from moving cities and had an appointment to get work done on the new house. I had been up all night and had an intense tension headache. We left in rush hour and trucks were weaving in and out of lanes around us, horns were honking and sirens were roaring. I did not feel safe.
A quarter of the way through the drive, I wished that I could just smack the anxiety out of me and force myself to focus, and then a ray of insight interrupted my tornado of terror with the phrase, “I will keep you safe.”
Traffic was at a standstill. I turned down the music, took a deep breath, looked my son in the eye through the rear-view mirror and proclaimed: "I will keep you safe." He thought my tears of joy were hilarious. I turned the music back on, and we laughed and jammed for the remaining 90 minutes of the drive. While this mantra is not a cure for anxiety, it has helped give me the strength I need to gain control when I am overwhelmed. It helps me break through the tension every day.
I am not suggesting that managing anxiety is that simple. My mental health will always be a work in progress, but I have found a tool that works for me. If the voices in your head sound like the voices in mine, try talking back, and see what happens.
Robin is a disability and mental health advocate from Ontario, Canada.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.