Have you ever had the urge to jump in front of a train as it goes through the station? Or stood at the top of the stairs and wonder what would happen if you dropped your baby? These thoughts sound extreme and disturbing, but as Dr Caroline Boyd explains, they’re actually incredibly common. But because of the shame we feel around them, we’re silenced. And actually, what we really need to do is talk about them, which can bring huge relief.


** Trigger warningdiscussion of unwanted intrusive thoughts. Take care when reading. 

  • Picture the scene: a crisp, sunny morning in Manhattan, New York. A whirlwind visit with my husband pre children – one glorious week visiting restaurants, galleries and tourist spots in the Big Apple.

  • On this particular day, we were ascending the Empire State building. When we reached the top, I suddenly and unexpectedly felt an intense urge to jump off and imagined myself plummeting fatally to the far-off streets below.

  • So strong was this impulse I found myself gripping the safety pane of glass more tightly, as if I might somehow launch myself off if I wasn’t sufficiently tethered.

  • On reflection, I recognised certain aspects of this vivid, unwanted urge that are typical of this mental phenomena (Clark, 2005).

  • Number one, the impulse clashed with my current mood. Before climbing to the top, I was in good spirits, enjoying chatting with my husband.

  • Number two, the impulse was triggered by what I was doing and externally cued by the sheer height of the 102-storey skyscraper.

  • And finally, the more I attended and attached importance to the impulse, the more intense it felt. Was I crazy for having a thought about jumping off? Could I actually act on this urge? This intensity lasted for as long as I was standing at the top.

  • Can you relate? Experiencing unwanted, intrusive thoughts is incredibly common – nearly universal. And yet they can feel really upsetting for some people – partly because intrusive thoughts remain so taboo and little talked about.

  • These attention-grabbing thoughts pop up seemingly out of the blue for many reasons – and are completely normal for both adults & children.

  • Given that on average, we experience around 4,000 thoughts in a 16-hour day, is it any wonder that some mental intrusions are peculiar and disturbing.

  • The content of unwanted violent or sexual thoughts, urges & images fly in the face of societal norms – usually focusing on the very opposite of what we want to do.

  • What if jump onto the train tracks?

  • What if I scream in a hushed building?

  • What if I poison my child?

  • What if I touch my sister/ boss / friend inappropriately?

  • What can help is understanding these kinds of thoughts as normal. YOU are normal.

  • A particular category of unwanted intrusions that can feel really scary are unwanted thoughts of harm coming to our babies. My published research and clinical work shows how common these are – especially in early motherhood when our threat system is on high alert.

  • These disturbing, anxiety-driven thoughts include word thoughts (such as “What if my baby stops breathing?”), vivid visions (e.g. a mental picture of the baby rolling off the changing mat), and impulses or urges (a sudden impulse to throw the baby). Broadly, there are two kinds of unwanted, baby-related harm thoughts.

  • One is accidentally harming a child, reported by nearly every single woman in my study and larger studies. Examples include an image of the baby suffocating, falling or being dropped.

  • The second type are intrusive thoughts of intentional harm – experienced by as many as one in two mothers. Women report imagining stabbing their baby with a kitchen knife, or visualising throwing their child out of a window. Others admit they have ‘seen’ themselves punching their child in the face or drowning them in the bath.

  • These harm thoughts can pop into a mother’s mind unexpectedly and evoke horror – even though she would never deliberately hurt her child.

  • Women often feel intense shame or horror when they have these thoughts – which means they don’t talk about them. Shame is silencing – preventing us from sharing our scary, sometimes paralysing, thoughts.

  • However, the very fact mums feel ashamed or horrified about having these thoughts is a strong sign that they’re not going to hurt the baby.

  • Reassuring findings from the latest research (Fairbrother, 2022) shows that women experiencing these disturbing images are, actually, slightly less likely to hurt their babies.

  • It’s important to distinguish unwanted, intrusive thoughts from postpartum psychosis, a severe but rare condition affecting around one in 1,000 women. Signs of postpartum psychosis include mania, hallucinations and delusions.

  • In the event of postpartum psychosis, women tend to believe the delusions to be real and may not realise they are unwell. However, women experiencing intrusive thoughts are aware that their unwanted images are outside their ‘normal’ thinking – and so can find them extremely upsetting. The emotional response is key: intrusive thoughts induce feelings of horror, fear and disgust. In other words, the more horrified you are by the thoughts, the less likely you are to act on them.

  • So if these thoughts aren’t actually dangerous, why do they feel so scary?

  • Many women believe their unwanted thoughts are a sign that they’re a ‘bad’ mum. It’s the meaning that mothers draw from their thoughts and visions that gives them power. None of the women I interviewed in my published research shared their intrusive thoughts of harm with a health professional, due to fears of being judged an unfit mother or worse – having their baby taken away.

  • This is what I call the policing effect of aspiring to be ‘Supermum’. It relates to the ‘perfect mother’ myth in Western culture – promoting the idealised mum as ‘natural’, blissed-out and loving every moment.

  • This toxic myth gets internalised, leading to us believing that we must prove to ourselves and others that we’re always calm, coping and in control.  Of course, this sets women up to fail because when we experience the messy reality of having a baby, we discover how living up to this ideal is impossible.


1. Understand why they occur 

  • Our minds have evolved to keep us safe. From the age of early hunter-gatherers, the primitive mind was constantly assessing the environment for danger – and striving to avoid it.

  • Now the modern brain has become super skilled at anticipating and avoiding threat. This means our threat system, shaped by our genes and life experiences, is highly sensitive and reactive.

  • Designed to ‘look out’ for danger, our brain generates thousands of thoughts, many of which flow beneath our active awareness. But when we experience an intrusive thought, evoking emotions such as fear, horror or shame, this triggers our internal alarm system, shifting the thought into consciousness.

  • It’s our brain’s way of alerting us to the potential threat – to try and protect us. However, our mind can’t distinguish between a life-or-death threat, such as a predatory attack, or an internal threat like an intrusive thought. Both these send the same “Danger!” signal – activating our fight, flight, freeze reaction. We’re flooded with adrenalin and fear, with a powerful urge to flee or fight to survive.

  • For mothers, their intrusive thoughts can be an adaptive response to the huge responsibility of having a baby. These thoughts make women more conscious of their power in contrast to their baby’s acute vulnerability. So they’re a bit like an effective warning system.

2. Talking really helps

  • Interpreting your thoughts to mean you’re bad or mad, or that you might act on them, can increase their frequency and severity, making them harder to dismiss. For some, this can lead to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), or perinatal OCD, which can arise or intensify in pregnancy. This is why talking about your thoughts is so important – bringing huge relief.

  • Try talking about your intrusive thoughts with a supportive friend – they may have had similar experiences, helping you feel validated and less alone.

3. Practise mindfulness skills to help you notice your thoughts – and let them go

  • Fighting our thoughts or labelling ourselves ‘bad’ for having them gives them power. Practice mindfulness skills to separate yourself from your thoughts – giving you more space to respond rather than react. Acknowledge them with kindness and without judgement, then try to let them go.

  • Next time you notice an intrusive thought, tell yourself: “Hello there thought. You’re simply a thought. Having this thought doesn’t mean I am a bad person. I’m good enough and I am safe.”


**Note on help-seeking**

If you’re struggling with your intrusive thoughts, please talk to a trusted health professional, such as your GP. You can also access private talking therapy (eg For emergency support, please call 999 or visit A&E.

** Caroline’s new book, Mindful New Mum: A Mind-Body Approach to the Highs and Lows of Motherhood, is available now and there is more information on her website:




–  READ  Living With Sexual Intrusive Thoughts by Kim French, who has courageously shared her experience in this list.

–  READ How I Finally Learned To Be Kind To Myself by Zoe Blaskey, which highlights how we can never really know the internal battles other people are facing, and how they journey through them.

–  READ psychotherapist Anna Mathur’s list Postnatal Depression Got Me Too where she shares her experience of suffering from PND.

–  READ Laura Dockrill’s terrifying experience of Postpartum Psychosis and how, with support, she began her recovery.

–  READ Jodi Garrod’s list Self-Compassion, Anyone? who explores what it was like to have a strong inner critic before letting up a bit and learning not being so hard on herself.

–  LISTEN to Matt Haig on But Why? podcast talking Mental Health and how, although being open about depression and anxiety can be useful, the conversation needs to be handled mindfully.

–  LISTEN to Camilla Thurlow discuss the topic of courage on Honestly podcast, and how her experience of it took her to places way out of her comfort zone.

–  LISTEN to But Why? podcast with Anna Mathur as she talks Maternal Rage and why these moments of losing control happen and how we can make them less likely.



Find submission guidelines here. All writers and topics are welcome.


** ‘But why do adults drink beer and what does it do?’ But why don’t I feel happy all the time?’ and ‘But why do people die and are they just sleeping?’ are some of the tricky questions I tackle in my debut book BUT WHY? which is available to order now and also on audiobook.**

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