The anxiety experience: 7 metaphors to illustrate anxiety
Sometimes, people just do not understand what sufferers of anxiety endure. The thought occurred when having a discussion with a young person to whom was having relationship problems. As we talked, I realised that his over-critical character and pessimistic outlook about his girlfriend highlighted his frustration given his attempts to introduce new experiences. He used common British phrases such as: “get on with it” and “sort yourself out”. He accused her of being a “drama queen” and simply “wanting attention”.
As we further discussed I decided to communicate the experience by using linguistic imagery. The following metaphors will attempt to communicate the experience of anxiety. Each metaphor was designed to identify at least one of four aspects of anxiety: dread or anticipation of the future, indecisive actions, ruminating or rapid thoughts, and cognitive magnification.
Anxiety is like walking down a dark and scary alley without knowing what is awaiting you: This form of thinking is concerned with ends or outcomes. The fear of things to come is a common event. Worries concerning bills or a real threat to or sense of mental and physical equanimity are crucial. Whilst we cannot control the future, we need to think carefully about how we can work towards getting towards that end rather than the end itself. For example, if I need to get upstairs, I must consider the steps (i.e. the actual stairs) prior to the end. Each step must be taken at the pace suitable for the walker, not society.
Anxiety is like swimming in the ocean with no land in sight: The mind has a keen way of magnetising events of our lives. What can seem small and insignificant to one is massive in scale to another. Consider a 7ft man floating in an ocean 450ft deep. While he is large on land, the ocean proves a great challenge to his sense of size.
Anxiety is like trying to memorise all of the conversations within a crowded restaurant: Racing thoughts are disturbing, at the least. The constant chatter in a restaurant both forces the person to speak louder and decreases the ability to be present at significant life events. When this continued chatter is internalised, the disturbance becomes greater because walking out is not an option.
Anxiety is like making a decision to eat raw horse brains or a rat’s guts: When given the choice between two distasteful options, our instinct is to run away. These options are commonly known as avoid-avoid scenarios. With anxiety, given our fears, worries, and dread, most options seem to be dangerous. As such, the consequence involves inaction. However, by choosing inaction, the anxiety sufferer feels shame about not proceeding whilst dread given the choices.
Anxiety is like being the only person that knows the world is ending but everyone calls you crazy: As the Asch experiments on group influence have demonstrated, people do not like to feel alone. In fact, people are willing to accept information as true even if it conflicts with normal sensibilities. When the thoughts are internal, unsupportive environments are more challenging because we have only the feeling and nothing else to evidence.
Anxiety is like being strapped to a chair whilst looking at an open door: Anxiety has a way of holding people in a game where you know the next step but the ability to move is inconceivable. The desire to take action is present and well-intentioned. However, every time you move, anxiety tightens the grips.
Anxiety is like being randomly brutally beaten at different points throughout the day but you don’t know when the beaten will occur: No form of physical violence is pleasant. However, when it occurs, there is the fear that it may happen again. When a person becomes aware of a pattern of events, the fear is intensified. Anxiety identifies past experiences in the attempt to prevent them from happening in the future. As such, the person may begin to systematically avoid any event, interaction, thought, or feeling associated with the experience. In this case the primary function of anxiety is avoidance. When we avoid scary or unpleasant events the mind has the capacity to intensify the experience rather than seeing it for what it “is”.
After providing the experiential imagery to the young man, he better understood what his girlfriend endured. At its core, anxiety represents a range of emotions and feelings linked with our everyday experiences. Under normal circumstances, we take the thought and feeling as an ephemeral moment in the wind. In other cases, anxiety can control our existence and incapacitate the person. The mind has a keen way of magnifying events, continual repetition of negative or disturbing thoughts, and even all-or-nothing thinking.
Anxiety does serve a very vital purpose. Anxiety is a way of alerting the body of a potential danger or threat. Ancestors and elders refer to anxiety as a “gut” feeling or instinct. Before modern society, we could use anxiety to alert us of dangerous animals or unrelenting condition. In our modern industrialised age, anxiety operates in the same capacity. However, we are not worried about lions and tigers and bears (oh my!!). We are concerned about bills, work, food, personal/interpersonal relationships, and money. Now that our worries are no longer externalised, anxiety sometimes can run amuck.
The above metaphors were intended to communicate the perspective of anxiety sufferers to those that have never had the experience of disordered anxiety. Of course the question can be asked, “Why is it important that non-anxiety sufferers understand anxiety”? The answer is simple. These are our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbours. The anxiety sufferer wishes to engage but struggles given their fears, worries, and doubts. In addition, there is no physical manifestation of an anxiety sufferer. In fact, it could be anyone.
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