5 Metaphors That Can Change Your Relationship with Anxiety
Many of my sessions with clients struggling with anxiety start similarly: some variation of “I just want to stop feeling this way” or “How can I make my anxiety go away?”
For the first few years of my career as a therapist, I focused on tips, techniques and tricks to distract, argue or invalidate anxiety. Sometimes they worked, albeit temporarily. But little did I realize I was subtly sending the message that anxiety was a problem to be fixed rather than an emotion to be accepted.
When I took a seminar in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based treatment, I saw my relationship with my own anxiety (and other thoughts and feelings, for that matter) change dramatically.
I’ve learned many helpful anecdotes, frameworks and theoretical orientations from ACT, but the one takeaway that reigns supreme in my practice (and in the way I treat myself) is the acceptance of anxiety and negative thoughts as a normal part of the human condition.
Yup, I said it — if you get anxious, you’re doing it right.
The problem is not our anxiety per se but our relationship with our anxiety. Do we ignore it completely, leaving it no choice but to build up over time and come back swinging? Do we get angry and punish ourselves for feeling anxious, adding insult to injury? Do we completely engulf ourselves in our emotions, letting go of all logic and reason?
Or do we accept and acknowledge our feelings as transient, impermanent experiences that don’t have to disrupt our day to day lives? As Russ Harris says in his therapy textbook ACT Made Simple:
“Even if your experience in this moment is difficult, painful, or unpleasant, you can be open to it and curious about it instead of running from it or fighting with it.”
But it can be difficult to be curious about an experience that’s historically been very painful for us. That’s where metaphors come in.
Killick, Curry and Myles put it perfectly in their 2016 article “The mighty metaphor: a collection of therapists’ favorite metaphors and analogies”, published in The Cognitive Behavior Therapist:
“Metaphors help our minds…find new understandings by linking something which is familiar with something that is similar but not identical. … Moreover, we are active in making these connections and the more meaning we find in those connections the more likely we are to be influenced by them.”
The article goes on to describe metaphors as “essential tools in the therapeutic process; providing the therapist with a means of communicating potentially complex psychological concepts and theory to clients.”
Metaphors are a powerful way to remove ourselves slightly from our feelings and thoughts. Rather than staying immersed in our emotions, we are able to observe them.
Below are five of my favorite metaphors to reference when dealing with anxiety. They can also apply to self-critical thoughts, judgments about others, negative thinking and much more.
Waves Rolling in From the Ocean
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the field of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”. Applicable to both life circumstances and our thoughts, this metaphor supports the idea that we can’t control our thoughts but we can learn to cope with them.
Sometimes waves are massive and look as though they can crush you; sometimes they’re small and less scary. Either way, they are constantly coming and going — just like your feelings.
This coping skill can be implemented in two ways. The first and perhaps more easily accessible way is to imagine waves in front of you on a beach. The second is to utilize a sound machine or visual aid to watch and listen to the waves and imagine they are. The purpose is to learn and accept their complexity and variety in nature.
Trains Passing by On a Platform
Think about the last time you stood on a train platform. Chances are the one you needed to catch may not have been the first that passed by. Or perhaps you saw multiple trains pass by in different directions. Sometimes the station can get chaotic, noisy and confusing, especially if you’re not sure where to go.
I think I understand where the expression “train of thought” comes from. You can’t stop the trains from passing by and pausing for a little bit, but you get to decide whether you get to ride it to the end of the line; the same is true for our anxious thoughts.
I’ve found this analogy works best for “worst-case scenario” thoughts — you know, when you have an event coming up but you can’t stop thinking it’s going to go poorly. When using the train metaphor, imagine the many different destinations of trains and use that to compare the many possible outcomes of your situation; it’ll help you from getting stuck on that one negative destination.
Clouds in the Sky
Isn’t it true that some days are cloudless, beautiful and endlessly blue, while others are dark, dismal and ominous? The weather certainly has a mind of its own. Sometimes the clouds completely take over and other times they are just gently floating in the background. So it is with our thoughts.
Remember that the sky is always the sky, whether it’s completely obstructed by a storm or sparsely scattered with clouds. Your anxiety is just a small — and temporary — part of your story. You’re bigger and more expansive than just a few negative thoughts.
If you’re struggling with multiple complicated feelings at once, try glancing up at the sky at all of the different clouds, or closing your eyes an imagining a sky with several clouds in it. Assign each one of your negative thoughts or feelings to a cloud, and practice acceptance of the fact that they can all float along together.
A Cranky Toddler
You heard me right — anxiety can be like a 3 year old on the verge of throwing an ear-shattering temper tantrum. Whiny, crying, loud — you get the picture.
Much like your anxiety, you can’t completely ignore a toddler or they’ll amp up the volume. But you also don’t want to shout at them; that’ll make things exponentially worse.
I recommend treating your anxiety like you would a small child: talk to yourself in a kind, caring, and non-judgmental voice. Imagine you must take care of this child just like you have to take care of your anxiety. You might need to hold its hand while you move throughout your day, but eventually, it’ll settle down.
A Box in the Back of Your Closet
Although compartmentalizing too much can keep us from experiencing a full range of emotions, sometimes it’s the perfect coping skill to use when anxiety really isn’t suiting us.
Picture an old shoebox. Now imagine placing every unhelpful and negative thought into the box. Worst case scenarios, negative thoughts, you name it. You can even go a step further and imagine each thought or negative possibility as an item.
Now imagine sliding the box into the back shelf of your closet. You can always go open it again if you want, but for now, your anxiety has a safe place so you can go about your day.
By using metaphors, not only are we able to distance ourselves slightly from our emotions, but we are less likely to let our negative thoughts and feelings get in the way of our goals and what we truly value in life. We can let go of the idea that we must fix every unpleasant emotion that passes through and instead begin to accept that, while anxiety might linger in the background, it no longer needs to be the star of our show.