The anxiety experience: 7 metaphors to illustrate anxiety

It can be said that, occasionally, those with good mental health don’t understand what sufferers of anxiety endure. The thought occurred to me when having a discussion with a young person who was struggling with relationship problems. 

As we talked, his use of typically British phrases: “get on with it” and “sort yourself out”, highlighted his over-critical character and pessimistic outlook about his girlfriend, portraying his frustration when attempting to introduce new experiences into his relationship. He regularly accused her of being a “drama queen” and simply “wanting attention”.


As we chatted further, I decided to communicate the experience of understanding anxiety by using linguistic imagery, with the following metaphors attempting to communicate different experiences of anxiety: dread or anticipation of the future, indecisive actions, ruminating or rapid thoughts, and cognitive magnification. 

1. Anxiety is like walking down a dark and scary alley without knowing what is waiting for you.

This form of thinking is concerned with endings or outcomes - the fear of things to come is a common event. Worries concerning household bills are a real threat to our sense of mental and physical equanimity, and these are crucial.

Whilst we cannot control the future, we need to think carefully about how we can work towards achieving those steps to the end goal 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.    

4. 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 dreading both the choices.   

5. 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, human beings 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 as evidence.   

6. 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.

7. Anxiety is like being randomly, brutally beaten at different points throughout the day but you don’t know when the beating 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 an 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, with ancestors and elders referring to anxiety as a “gut” feeling or instinct. Before modern society, we could use anxiety to alert us of dangerous animals or unrelenting conditions. In our modern industrialised age, anxiety operates in the same capacity. However, we aren’t worried about lions and tigers and bears, we’re concerned about bills, work, food, personal/interpersonal relationships, and money. Now that our worries are no longer externalised, anxiety sometimes can become overpowering.

The above metaphors were intended to communicate the perspective of anxiety sufferers to those that have never had the experience of anxiety. Of course, the question can be asked, “Why is it important that non-anxiety sufferers understand anxiety?”

The answer is simple: the anxiety sufferer wishes to engage with friends, family, colleagues and neighbours, but struggles given their fears, worries, and doubts, that hold them back. Importantly, there isn’t a physical manifestation of an anxiety sufferer, in fact, it could be anyone.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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