It’s often difficult to communicate how it really feels to experience anxiety. To offer some insight, we share four ways to paint a visual and emotional picture...

Trying to explain anxiety to friends and family is hard. How do you grasp a whirlwind of emotions and string them into a sentence? And do those words really explain the nuances of how you’re feeling?

They say it’s good to talk, but opening up is often the first stumbling block in getting the support that we need. If you’re trying to communicate with someone who has never had anxiety issues themselves, it can be even harder. But when used in the right way, language can help you paint a vivid picture, and allow others to get that little bit closer to understanding your pain. In particular, many therapists say that metaphors are a useful tool for explaining what it feels like to live with anxiety.

What is a metaphor?

A metaphor is a figure of speech that aims to describe one thing by using something else as a point of reference. For example, you might say ‘she’s a real party animal’ to describe your friend who likes to dance and socialise. A writer might describe a summer sky as a ‘blue canvas peppered with marshmallow clouds’. It’s not literally a coloured canvas with sugary treats stuck to the surface, but the metaphor invites you to conjure up the image instantly in your head.

Why our brains love metaphors

Instead of simply communicating information, metaphors evoke visceral feelings through carefully chosen words and phrases. One study by the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that “conventional metaphorical expressions are more emotionally evocative than literal expressions.”

When observing brain activity, metaphors relating to taste were found to be particularly effective, and led to activation in areas associated with emotion and the physical act of tasting. For example, describing a person as ‘sweet’ had more impact when compared to the same sentence that used the word ‘kind’.

Why metaphors are helpful in a mental health context

Creating colourful descriptions might seem like a frivolous activity, reserved for novelists and poets. But metaphors are an integral part of how humans understand complicated concepts. For example, we talk about time in the same way that we talk about money. We talk about spending, saving, stealing, or wasting time, even though it’s not literally possible.

That’s why metaphors can be a powerful tool in the context of mental health. It can be hard to understand what an anxiety disorder feels like if you’ve never experienced it yourself, so people can sometimes lack empathy for their loved ones because they simply don’t understand the concept.

If you find it difficult to explain your anxiety symptoms to those around you, then try using these metaphors. Not only will they help you get your point across more clearly, but they should give the listener an example that will allow them to draw on their own personal experience to get a sense of how you’re feeling.


The coffee cup

First, let’s talk about anxiety in general, and how you can explain the concept as a whole. I’ll use the coffee cup metaphor, which I learned from environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant Lee Chambers. Think about your brain and body like a mug, and inside the mug is some coffee, which symbolises your anxiety. When there’s just a few drops of leftover coffee in the mug, it’s much easier to handle. If you knock it over, you can clean up any mess quickly with a paper towel.

But, sometimes, the coffee is full to the brim and piping hot. Any minor bump will cause you to spill the entire contents, burn yourself, and create a big stain on the carpet that will need to be professionally cleaned. This is a good way to explain that for some of us, anxiety is a constant presence and often needs outside assistance. It also illustrates the reason why you react differently one day to the next, depending on how much ‘coffee’ is in your mug, and how much stress you’re under.

The rollercoaster

Everyone experiences anxiety in some shape or form. It’s a natural response to something scary, like speaking in front of a crowd or taking an important test. But because those feelings are brief and linked to a specific cause, sometimes people can’t understand how intense it can be to live in a constant state of fear.

Try explaining this heightened state of anxiety by reminding people about how it feels at the highest point of a rollercoaster. Now ask them to remember that intense wave of fear that comes just before they tip over the edge. It’s a stomach-churning sensation that lasts mere seconds, but for people with chronic anxiety, it can linger for days, or even weeks. This is particularly helpful if people around you say that anxiety is ‘all in your head’, and they aren’t aware of the various physical symptoms.

The Broken lift

Having an anxiety attack can make you feel like you’re trapped, even when you’re in a wide-open space, or have the freedom to move around. Compare this to being in a broken lift.

The doors are closed, and you’re stuck in a confined space. You worry that you might die there. You know logically that help is coming, and that eventually the doors will open, but until then you have to wait it out nervously in a confined space with no daylight or fresh air. Use this metaphor, and those close to you might even feel better equipped to comfort you when you’re having an anxiety attack.

The excited puppy

Positive psychology practitioner Ruth Cooper-Dickson says that many of her clients use a puppy metaphor to explain how anxiety makes it difficult to concentrate. Imagine a puppy bounding around with endless amounts of energy. They never do as they’re told, and they get easily distracted when something new catches their attention.

“Because anxious thoughts can appear to be very excitable or use nervous energy,” says Ruth, “you have to learn to focus your thoughts, and to calm the mind down using puppy tricks.” In the context of anxiety, this means drawing on tools like cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to retrain your thinking patterns.

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