Mental health

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Anxiety TikTok Helped Me See My Intrusive Thoughts For What They Were

Thank God for my For You page.

Originally Published: 

I was out to dinner with some friends recently when one of them cast her eyes across the table and asked, “So, what TikTok are you on?”

More revealing than a star sign and less corporate than a Myers-Briggs personality type, seeing someone’s “For You” page can feel like a peek into their psyche. This is, after all, the app that famously knows people have ADHD or are bisexual before they do.

One by one, my friends took their turns revealing their algorithmic identities. We oohed and aahed over one friend’s pristine page, nothing but OOTDs and aspirational travelogues. We howled at another’s endless scroll of pimple-popper videos and plastic surgery fails. We marveled at a third’s topical feed, a combination of confirmation hearing clips and dance remixes of The Slap.

But when it was my turn to pull out my phone, I demurred — I already knew what the app would say about me. Because while I see my fair share of slugging tutorials, home reno before-and-afters, and even the occasional Timothée Chalamet supercut, there’s one kind of content I’m served more than anything else: videos about intrusive thoughts, otherwise known as out-of-the-blue, day-ruining worries about the terrible things that could happen to your children. In other words, I’m on anxious mom TikTok.

And, it turns out, I’m not alone.

In March, Denver mom Annalee Ford posted a series of six videos titled “What it’s like having intrusive thoughts as a mom” to the app. In each video, set to a chipper Electric Light Orchestra song, Ford is merrily going about her day when it’s interrupted by one devastating thought after another:

“What if you’re playing at the beach and a wave sweeps your baby away?”

“What if you accidentally drop that knife and it falls on your baby?”

“What if your baby learns how to unlock the front door, crawls into the street, and gets smushed by a car?”

When Ford uploaded the videos, she didn’t expect much. “I had never heard another mom talk about intrusive thoughts before, and I assumed it was only me thinking about all the things that could happen to my kids,” she says. But the videos touched a nerve, garnering more than 4 million views and drawing thousands of comments. Many of those commenters said they knew exactly how Ford was feeling:

“I literally thought I was crazy until I found out this happens to other moms!”

“Omg I thought I was the only one who came up with bad scenarios in my head then stressed about it.”

“Ummm did you hear my brain this morning?”

“It me.”

It me, too.

Three years ago, when my eldest son, Finnegan, was born 7 weeks early, he had dislocated limbs, collapsed lungs, and required tubes to feed. In the early days of his two-month NICU stay, he was so sick that my husband, Emmett, and I couldn’t hold him. Instead, we just sat next to him, endlessly stroking the soft skin of his hand. Through all that sitting, all that stroking, the same question ran laps around my mind: What if I lost him? I couldn’t help but imagine the end — the bleating alarms, the squeal of sneakers on linoleum, the crowd of scrub-clad hospital staff, and then, the silence — and hope that, like most of the things I imagined, it wouldn’t happen.

For many, these thoughts are just part of being a new parent. But for others, they can be a sign of postpartum anxiety, depression, or OCD. Which is why Paige Bellenbaum, a founding director of The Motherhood Center in New York City, asks her clients who experience intrusive thoughts whether they’re part of a broader pattern.

“It can be terrifying to say, ‘I’m afraid I might throw the baby out the window,’ ‘I’m afraid the stroller will roll in the street,’ or ‘I’m afraid to lose the baby in the bedsheets.’ ... But once you acknowledge it, you can do something about it.”

“If someone tells me, ‘I’m having scary thoughts and I’m tired and overwhelmed,’ well, that could simply be a new mom making an enormous life transition,” she says. “But if she also says, ‘I’m feeling hopeless, I’m not enjoying things, I feel like I’ve made a terrible mistake, I can’t eat, I can’t sleep,’ then I’m inclined to say that could be something more.”

Bellenbaum, who herself experienced postpartum depression and anxiety, says that while shame and fear make many women reluctant to share what they’re going through, they shouldn’t shy away from speaking up.

“It can be terrifying to say, ‘I’m afraid I might throw the baby out the window,’ ‘I’m afraid the stroller will roll in the street,’ or ‘I’m afraid to lose the baby in the bedsheets,’” she says. “But once you acknowledge it, you can do something about it.”

The alarms going off at the NICU wasn’t the only vision that preoccupied me. I kept recalling a school assignment I was once given: to keep a raw egg intact for a week. Determined to succeed, I encased the egg in bubble wrap, placed a canopy of Kleenex on top of it, and packed it tightly into a shoebox. I was building an incubator, like the one my son would later live in. And my goal was the same: to shield them from harm.

Instead, the intense anxiety of our hospital stay yielded to a more insidious sort of worry.

It didn’t work out so well for the egg, in the end. After five days, I fell down a flight of stairs while carrying it and the force of my landing shattered its thin shell. When Finnegan was finally discharged from the NICU, I wondered: Would it work out any better for him?

Objectively, it did. Finnegan ditched his casts, tapered off his medications, and made it through his battery of post-discharge assessments unscathed. Doctors stopped using the word “if” to describe his continued survival. “God, you must be so relieved,” one person after another said to me.

But I didn’t feel relieved. Instead, the intense anxiety of our hospital stay yielded to a more insidious sort of worry. When my mom carried Finnegan down the street, I imagined her tripping and slamming into the concrete sidewalk. I pictured myself stepping over my injured mother to tend to my son, the necessary horror of casting her aside. As I showered, I envisioned an accident happening while Finnegan was in Emmett’s care, his sharp screams rising above the din of falling water. I even saw myself slipping as I followed a now toddler-aged Finnegan down the stairs and crushing him, much as I’d crushed that egg. I heard the sound of his small bones snapping in my head so many times that I scarcely believed it wasn’t real.

This was in 2019, around the same time TikTok passed the billion-download mark, but still years before videos like Ford’s would show me something that’s been true all along: These thoughts didn’t make me an outlier, the lone worried woman in a sea of placid parents. In fact, they may even make me typical. According to a 2006 study of postpartum parents, 91% of mothers experience upsetting intrusive thoughts about their newborn. A 2019 study goes even further, estimating that number as high as 100% for unwanted thoughts about accidental infant-related harm.

It’s those simple words — he’s fine, he’s fine, he’s fine — that I’ve repeated endlessly to myself ever since.

In my case, it was only when the thing I feared most almost happened that I decided to actively treat my own intrusive thoughts.

It happened on the stairs, and almost exactly as I’d always imagined it. Finnegan and my mom were playing in the basement, their uproarious laughter wafting upstairs to meet me. Then I stepped on a creaky floorboard. I heard the rush of small feet as my eagle-eared son ran to the safety gate at the bottom of the stairs. “Mama?” he cried, rattling it. I listened to my mom’s feet behind him and the sound of her unlatching the gate. “Let’s go see Mama,” she said.

Instead, I decided, I’d go see them. “Mama’s coming!” I called out as I padded to the top of the stairs. It was the last thing I said before my feet slipped out from under me and I tumbled down at precisely the moment Finnegan was climbing up. The effort required to stop myself from barreling into him split my pants, bruised my side, and wrenched my shoulder from its socket. Finnegan, however, was fine. And it’s those simple words — he’s fine, he’s fine, he’s fine — that I’ve repeated endlessly to myself ever since.

He’s so fine that his dislocated limbs can now run.

He’s so fine that his collapsed lungs can now breathe.

He’s so fine that he escaped the fate of my middle school egg.

My “it’s fine” mantra, it turns out, is not unlike what Ford does to deal with her intrusive thoughts. According to a video she posted about coping strategies, she likes to quickly tap her forehead — a form of therapy called EFT — while repeating, “I am safe. My babies are safe. We are safe.” In the video’s comments, other moms rushed in to recommend approaches that had worked for them: Distracting themselves. Asking for help. Getting some sleep. Meditating. Bellenbaum, meanwhile, suggests talking to an expert, reading affirming books such as Karen Kleiman’s Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts, joining a support group, and, sometimes, medication.

I, meanwhile, am getting there — slowly learning to enjoy happy moments with Finnegan and his baby brother, Kip, without opening a trap door of what-ifs below my feet. Therapy, writing, and the willingness to look a little woo-woo doing mindfulness exercises in public have helped. But the thing that’s made the biggest difference of all is the daily reminder, on my TikTok "For You" page, that it isn’t just me.

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