From Darkness to Light: How to Stop Overthinking and Start Loving Yourself

The journey to self-acceptance

Joy does not emerge from a fight against our darkness, our problems, our overthinking and our imperfections. Freedom only comes from an unconditional acceptance of reality, and discovering a trust in our own basic goodness (yes, you really have this). Inner peace develops as we learn to become true, loyal and loving friends to ourselves, no matter what kind of negative, repetitive or intrusive thoughts our minds produce. In other words, we can’t stop overthinking until we start loving ourselves – unconditionally.

The image depicts a view from within a dense, dark forest with clinging vines and overhanging trees. A path leads to a warm, sunny, hopeful sunrise at the edge of the forest.
Light at the end of the tunnel

Navigating the Dark Forest of Overthinking and Anxiety

I often use metaphors in my work, so I offer this one in case it resonates for you. Overthinking, regret, shame and anxiety can feel like a dark and ominous forest in which you’re trapped with no way out. Perhaps you’ve been fighting valiantly with the clinging vines and sticky foliage of rumination to escape. You may have tried incredibly hard, longing to break through into the light, yet over and over you feel dragged backwards by familiar weeds. Showing up while living with such painful feelings takes huge energy and courage. Do you offer yourself generous and kind recognition for how hard you’ve tried?

Condemning ourselves while fighting the very problems which our own minds create drains us and keeps us stuck in this forest of doom. Our minds can produce endless thought loops and worries in which to get caught up, and struggling with them often just spawns more. Because we are fighting thoughts literally generated within our own minds, we are matched against an opponent who always knows our next move. Can you see how this is an unwinnable fight?

Breaking Free Of The Struggle

However, you can learn to put down the struggle and offer yourself unconditional compassion, love and acceptance. You can start to gently release the fruitless attempts to wish away the mistakes and hurts of the past, or to anxiously control the future. When you work out what is actually within your power, you may instead direct your energy towards the inner storehouse of resources which you can build in this moment. These emotional resources can offer you safe refuge, strength and resilience. They create something concrete to rely on, whatever the future holds.

Cultivating Self-Compassionate Tools for Self-Love and Healing

Although it can feel all-consuming, this constricting, dark forest is not all there is. And however lonely you feel right now, you are certainly not alone in experiencing painful feelings like these. If you’re not even sure how to begin to be kind to yourself, here are some self-talk (or EFT Tapping) prompts you could try. You might like to place a hand warmly over your heart, perhaps looking into your own eyes in a mirror as you speak them aloud.

  • I offer myself compassion for falling into this thinking trap and I acknowledge all the pain I’ve suffered while trying to set myself free.
  • I promise to become a good and loyal friend to myself, and to never abandon myself regardless of circumstances.
  • I take the risk of believing that I deserve compassion, no matter what, and I offer myself that kindness right now.
  • I recognise what is under my control, and I gently let go of all that is not.
  • I commit to moving towards positive qualities such as joy, compassion, acceptance, creativity, connection and love. I believe and know that these will become powerful resources for me no matter what the future holds.
  • When I drop the struggle, the light at the end of the tunnel is already there.
  • Thank you [insert your own name] for your courage and your good heart.
  • I love you.

If you’re searching for a counsellor to help you move forward with acceptance, courage and self-kindness, please reach out to me here.

you are worthy of love signage on brown wooden post
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Catastrophising: sorting fact from fiction

For better or for worse, the power of imagination is incredible. We can create a catastrophic story so compelling that we convince ourselves we’ve written a factual autobiography instead of a fictional novel. When it’s done, we drop ourselves into the devastating starring role. We then mentally suffer the foregone conclusions as if they’re 100% real.

Picture of a person falling through a hole into the darkness. Text below says "Catastrophising: When I forget that I wrote the story and fall into it instead".

Cognitive distortion

Unfortunately, this kind of unhelpful story (or “cognitive distortion“) only adds to our pain. At the same time as it magnifies threats, it also shrinks our sense of strength and our feeling of being able to survive and cope. In addition, the story can feel incredibly urgent, as if we must take action NOW. Yet resisting or fighting with it is like pouring further fuel on the flames of anxiety.

Why we suffer

When we catastrophise, our story is not supported by the evidence of our senses – or even common sense. Catastrophising confuses possibility and probability. Our minds can imagine literally anything at all, but that doesn’t make those outcomes any more real or likely.

However, if we are getting pulled towards catastrophic stories, it’s quite possible that we have gone through or are currently experiencing a period of high stress, physical pain or mental suffering. It’s important to first acknowledge and address those needs with conscious self-compassion.

Feeling terrified of the story I’m telling myself (“emotional reasoning“) is not evidence that it’s true, either. It’s merely a sign that I am a creative person who can generate stories that are extremely convincing. Regrettably, the stories can be so persuasive that I may fall into the habit of believing them without question.

Our nervous system does a great job of protecting us from danger. However, it can’t tell the difference between reality (actual danger) and imagination (our story). It therefore tries to protect us by fighting anything it perceives as danger, just to be on the “safe” side. This can be the beginning of the anxiety spiral.

Who wrote the story and is it true?

There is power in recalling and recognising that I am the author of the catastrophic story. As the author, I can notice the ways that the story is not based in reality and choose to tell a different, more realistic story. In fact, catastrophising is only a story of exaggerated danger and risk that I have learned to tell myself. It continues because it’s had payoffs in the past (like the extreme relief when the feared event does not occur) but what a cost it extracts in return!

After noticing who wrote the story, it can then be helpful to write down the bare facts surrounding the feared event, as a scientist or a journalist might be required to. Notice where the facts end and the crossover to the story begins. (Hint – it usually starts with the words “what if”). This act alone can start to undo the spell that we’ve cast on ourselves, bringing us back to reality.

Sometimes though, we need help to notice where we’ve come unstuck from the facts. If you’re a fellow creative story-teller who needs help with this, please get in touch.

woman engrossed in reading a story.
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Boundaries as Self-Care for Highly Sensitive People

The boundaries of Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) tend to be less robust than those of others for several reasons. Yet stress and resentment which build up over time don’t do anyone any good – not us and not the people we care about. That’s why boundaries are an important form of self-care for Highly Sensitive People. In fact, boundaries are what allow us to offer our best to the world.

Boundaries are how we take care of ourselves, not how we control others. Text set on background of an empty gold picture frame.

Fitting in with others

As HSPs, we may have become used to overriding our own needs to fit in with the non-sensitive world, hiding our sensitivity out of a learned fear that it’s some kind of shameful weakness. On top of this, one of the identifying features of Highly Sensitive People is what’s known as “depth of processing”. This tendency to reflect deeply and conscientiously comes with a heightened sense of empathy. Ignoring our own needs can come as the flipside of this ability to intuit what others may be thinking or feeling.

Couldn’t I just put up with it?

Another reason for holding back could be the worry about how much we’d suffer by communicating our boundary. We might imagine how much trouble we’d cause ourselves by “making waves” and having to endure the uncomfortable arousal of our sensitive nervous systems. After all, we could just put up with things because patience and fortitude are virtues, right?

Indeed these are positive qualities, but on some level we’ll know if we’re being honest with ourselves or making justifications for not practising self-care. Dr Elaine Aron, the research psychologist who identified the HSP trait, suggests a method to help weigh up your needs. On a scale of 1-10, try rating honestly how much the other party might suffer if you were to honour your boundary. Compare this to how much you would suffer in giving it up, and notice if you’ve underestimated one side or the other. This can be helpful for working out whether you’re stretching your “patience muscles” with an appropriate challenge, or lifting a weight that’s too heavy and could do you an injury.

colorful puzzle pieces with scrabble tiles
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Control issues?

Part of the hesitation to create boundaries may be due to the mistaken belief that they’re about controlling other people’s behaviour. This misunderstanding, while common, really is unfortunate.  If there’s one thing life teaches us, it’s that we can’t control the actions of others. Trying to do so will ultimately lead to disappointment, resentment and frustration – at best. We need to keep in mind what is under our own control (our own actions) and what is not (everyone else’s). Boundaries fall definitively into the first category. If you hear yourself saying something that sounds like an ultimatum, you’ve likely overshot the mark.

In fact, boundaries are how we look after OURSELVES. They’re a key form of self-care for Highly Sensitive People that actually put power back in our own hands. By taking compassionate responsibility for our self-care, we can wholeheartedly share our unique HSP gifts with others.

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Dogs don’t fight with their minds

Dogs have a mental health advantage over humans – they fight what they believe they can control, but they don’t fight with their minds.

dog lying down on floor, accepting reality
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My dog has been sick this week. The vet diagnosed “kennel cough” and suggested he probably picked it up from his recent visit to the dog park. He’s a big boy (35kg!) so the frequent coughing has been loud, kind of like the honking of a giant, breathless goose. Poor guy. He’s on medication now and has been resting a lot, finding himself patches of sun on the grass to lie in.

(Don’t worry, he’s feeling better now!) 🙂

While he’s been ill, I’ve noticed anew that dogs and humans do sickness differently. What stands out the most is that my dog is not creating any kind of narrative about his illness. He’s sick, but he’s not compounding his discomfort with rumination.

He still tries to bark at large passing trucks (which he strongly dislikes) even though he’s a bit hoarse and the effort makes him cough. But he’s not engaging with regrets or self-blame about the past (“WHY did I have to go to the dog park that day? I should have known better, touching noses with that dachshund was such a stupid decision!”). There are also no fears about the future (“Maybe this cough is really serious, what if I never get better? What if I can never go to the dog park again?!”) He’s just lying in the warm sun with his blankie, coughing occasionally.

Dogs don’t overthink or ruminate when they don’t feel their best. They don’t fight with their minds, they just experience the present moment (and take a nap when they can). But as humans – especially when tired, ill or stressed – our minds can easily drag us into fear, regret, anger or shame with our inner stories. These stories are often the mind’s misguided attempt to solve a problem or keep us safe, but they take us nowhere good. They only result in suffering, not solutions.

This story might have made a better illustration if my dog was actually a cow. Cows (as ruminants) need to regurgitate their food and chew it over a second time. This process explains the origin of the mental health term “rumination” – except we as humans tend to vomit up our thoughts instead and chew them over (and over) again. Cows need to do this to digest their food, but it doesn’t do human mental health any good at all.

nature animal agriculture cow
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As Overthinkers and HSPs, we have a particularly strong tendency to do this to ourselves. As part of our self care, we can practice developing a compassionate awareness of the signs that we are falling into the rumination trap. Why? Because rumination about what is beyond our control layers additional suffering on top of the challenges we are already facing.


Rumination, unnoticed and unaddressed, can get us stuck in unhelpful, intrusive, obsessive and even catastrophic thought loops. It’s the common thread between anxiety and depression. Often it has become an ingrained, automatic habit. Gently and kindly noticing when we have been triggered or have fallen into another painful cycle of rumination is the first step to setting ourselves free from unnecessary suffering.

We would do it for our pets – we deserve the same kindness from ourselves. Sometimes it helps to have someone show us how.

Could hypnosis help me?

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Hypnosis can help with a wide range of problems, and is supported by solid scientific evidence. Studies show that hypnosis can be useful for issues such as depression, stress, chronic pain and anxiety, as well as in assisting people to change negative habits and even to lose weight. Hypnosis can also be a great adjunct therapy to try alongside counselling.

You can find out more about hypnosis and how it can help in this introductory video:

Hypnosis at home

If you’d like to try using hypnosis to help with your personal development or healing, but you’re not sure who to trust or where to start, I recommend browsing through the catalogue at Hypnosis Downloads. The site contains more than 1200 professionally-produced, affordable self-hypnosis MP3s, so there is an excellent chance that you can find your very specific concern or issue and start working on it immediately. Each track is worked on by four professional hypnotherapists and has a money-back guarantee.

I’ve found Hypnosis Downloads makes hypnosis highly accessible and have personally found their MP3s to be very effective. Like online counselling, self-hypnosis is private and convenient. That means you can use these effective MP3s anywhere and anytime that suits you. This could be especially useful if you want to start working on a sensitive issue by yourself, or you want a way to manage difficult emotions between counselling sessions. Hypnosis can also help if scheduling appointments or getting out of the house is a problem. You can listen to these self-hypnosis tracks again and again to reinforce their effectiveness.

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Disclaimer

I have seen so much benefit from these hypnosis tracks that I have become an affiliate myself. I receive a commission for purchases made through this page. I also review resources periodically to ensure that high standards of satisfaction are maintained.


This content is provided solely for your personal development, to help you develop greater self-awareness and self-compassion through life’s difficulties. The information I provide in my content is generic and is not a substitute for specialised advice tailored to your unique circumstances. Do not take action or make major life decisions without first seeking independent, appropriately qualified professional advice specific to your individual needs.

Panic

Q: How can I deal with panic attacks? They’re keeping me awake at night.

Photo by John, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A: Firstly, practise reminding yourself (even when calm) not to trust anything that looks real when you’re having a panic attack, no matter how convincing it might seem. Panic attacks are the result of your mind trying to keep you safe, except the data it’s using is incomplete or faulty – so the effect is rather like the wheels of a car desperately spinning in mud. Panic ends up digging you deeper but can’t succeed in moving you forward.

There are two reasons for this: (1) things are almost certainly not the way they appear right now, because they’re being horribly exaggerated and distorted by a flood of powerful brain chemicals. If you’ve had a panic attack before and looked back on it, you’ll recognise this from your own experience. And (2) as long as you’re in this state of mind, you are not able to solve anything effectively. Like those spinning car wheels, there’s nothing solid for your mind to get a grip on in that state, no matter how much it accelerates. However, when the panicked state is finished, you’ll be much better able to fix any actual problems.

Promise yourself that for now, you’ll stop “accelerating” and instead repeatedly return your focus to your breathing – and that you will address the issue when your mind has returned to its normal state (and your mental wheels are back on solid ground).

Also, an interesting fact – emotions last a maximum of 90 seconds UNLESS we continue to “refresh” the story. So although it will go against your instincts, if you can aim to allow the panic to simply be present and to pass through you, the sensation may finish much sooner than you expected.

“Too sensitive?”

Q: My partner accuses me of being “too sensitive” and tells me I should just get over things. Is there hope for us? How can I handle this?

depressed ethnic woman sitting at table
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A: By not allowing those words to find a landing place. You may be feeling the sting because you believe them too – which means there’s some productive self-acceptance work you can do for yourself. Each time you feel hurt will be a reminder to look inwards.

From a different perspective, if your partner told you that your nose was too green, you wouldn’t care because you know it’s not true, right?

And who decides that sensitivity is a bad thing anyway? Could you learn to love your sensitivity as one of your beautiful and defining qualities instead?

Realistically, there is no such thing as “too sensitive” except in someone else’s opinion. There can be real value in an HSP/non-HSP pairing, so unless there’s another reason to consider leaving (eg a broader pattern of dismissiveness or control), there is hope.

What you can do instead is learn to accept yourself and show your partner with confidence that this is who you are and that sensitivity is one of your gifts. This raises the chances that they will choose to understand and love the whole package too. But even if they don’t, you’ve stayed true to the best of who you are.

How to stay happy and healthy when you’re scared to touch anyone

orange tabby cat beside fawn short coated puppy
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Humans are wired to need touch, and our skin is loaded with receptors which trigger the release of feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine. From the moment we are born, this physical connection with those who care for us is an important part of what keeps us alive and healthy. (Check out what happens to baby monkeys when they miss out on it). Touch affects our digestion, sleep and even our immunity. Touch deprivation causes stress, and when this occurs, our bodies respond by releasing cortisol, which starts the cascade of negative symptoms associated with the fight or flight response, and if prolonged, results in illness.

However, many of us are now stuck in situations where touch is no longer possible or even available, and the options which we might have made use of before, such as professional massage, carry risks which we may feel unable to accept. This situation disproportionately affects single-person households, people with compromised immunity, and those suffering from mental health issues like OCD or health anxiety. Hugs and hand-holding beyond our bubbles are no longer risk-free, and Dr Anthony Fauci (from the White House Coronavirus Task Force) has even said that handshakes should be banished forever.

So how do we get our need for touch met under these weird circumstances? I’ve put together a “touch menu” of self-care cards for you to choose from – and surprisingly, quite a few of the options don’t actually require skin contact to activate the same self-soothing response. The trick is in finding alternative ways to release the same hormones that humans get from skin-to-skin contact. We can also harness some of the advantages which technology makes available (definitely not around during the loneliness of the Spanish flu early last century!)

Print and cut out out these menu cards, and be sure to treat yourself with some touch alternatives each day.

touch menu options