As someone who suffers from anxiety, the use of metaphors can be one of the best ways I can communicate how I feel to my loved ones.
Some metaphors that describe my experiences with anxiety are:
- Trapped under anxiety.
- Struggling to keep afloat.
- A cloud above my head.
Some good anxiety similes are:
- Like running a marathon.
- Like confronting a bully.
- Like being stuck in a maze.
Below is the full list of anxiety idioms, similes and metaphors with explanations of each.
A List of Anxiety Metaphors, Idioms and Similes
1. Trapped Under Anxiety
One of the worst things about my anxiety is it prevents me from making decisions. I feel like no matter which decision I make, it might cause problems. You could say I’m between a rock and a hard place. And I end up just not doing anything.
The metaphor here is “trapped under”. Of course, you’re not actually trapped under anything. But it feels like you’re trapped underneath your anxiety because it won’t let you do things. It’s crippling you! It’s preventing you from making a decision, getting out of bed, or making any progress in your life.
2. Struggling to Keep Afloat
In the middle of the panic attack, you can feel like you’re drowning in water and struggling to keep afloat. You know you need to take a deep breath and calmly tread water. But every fiber of your being is making you want to splash your arms around wildly.
When I’m having an anxiety attack, I feel like I need something to ‘ground me’. I’ll often turn on a meditation app, for example, which calms me and makes me relax. But in the moment … it really can feel like you’re drowning in the wide open ocean.
3. A Volcano Ready to Burst
I chose this metaphor to explain the feeling leading up to a panic attack. You can feel it building up. The stress and anxiety is sitting there on your chest and you’re trying to push it back. But at some point you know the volcano will burst.
And when it does, all the anxiety overwhelms you at once. You can no longer hold it all in. And so you go into meltdown. Your heart rate becomes uncontrollable. You might start crying or lock yourself in your bedroom for a few days. The volcano has exploded, and you can no longer pretend the anxiety isn’t there.
4. A Bubble in your Chest
I’ll often misidentify my anxiety as reflux. This is because, for me, it feels like there’s a bubble of air right in the middle of my chest. And I think “Oh, if I burp, I’ll release it.”
To be honest, I don’t know if other people feel like this. But the bubble in the chest is one of the most common early signs of anxiety for me.
Of course, there’s no bubble. It’s just stress building up.
5. Anxiety is a Stalker
This one is very similar to some of my depression metaphors, like the “black dog”. For people with depression, they say that there’s a black dog following them. It won’t go away, no matter how much you want it to.
Similarly, when you have anxiety, it seems to be following you no matter where you go. Even when you think you’ve gotten away from it, it will pop up at inopportune moments. It even appears at the worst moments such as when you’re about to go into a job interview of meet someone for the first time.
6. Anxiety is a Cloud above my Head
The cloud over your head metaphor is similar to the stalker metaphor. It’s something that follows you around and won’t leave you alone.
But for the cloud over your head, it also refers to a general mood of sullenness and even depression that anxiety often comes with. You might go days without smiling. You feel ‘under the weather’ and the people around you might even get frustrated at you for being in a low mood.
It’s like you’re forever in shadow, not feeling any metaphorical ‘positive sunshine’ to help you get through your days.
7. Anxiety is a Prison in your Mind
While you might not literally be imprisoned, your anxiety can make you feel trapped. Social anxiety can prevent you from going out of your house and enjoying yourself, while other types of anxiety can prevent you from making decisions easily.
8. Anxiety is like Claustrophobia
When I’m having an anxiety attack, I feel like I want to escape my situation by any means necessary. I want to escape that fast heartbeat and breathlessness. And I feel I want to escape this situation where I feel I have no control over my own body.
This is a lot like claustrophobia, which is the sensation you get when you’re in a tight space and want to get out of it. There’s a desperation and uncontrollable need to get out at all costs. You are often unable to relax and breathe through the situation.
In fact, claustrophobia is likely a particular type of anxiety.
9. Anxiety is a Constant Battle
There are many war metaphors in our language for whenever people go through struggle in their personal lives. And this metaphor of things being a “battle” constructs anxiety as an enemy who you are at war with.
People might use this metaphor when explaining why they have so many bad days. You could say “every day it’s a battle to hold anxiety at bay.” (In fact, even ‘to hold at bay’ has war origins).
10. Put Anxiety in its Box
To put something in its box is to repel it and return it to a closed-off space where it can be controlled.
When we refer to putting anxiety ‘in its box’, we might also be talking about the ability to compartmentalize it. This means to put aside the things that are causing anxiety and dedicate time to address them logically at a specific time and place. Then, when you’re not working on your anxieties, setting them aside and not allowing them to worry you.
It’s not easy – but compartmentalization is a strategy many people use to control anxiety.
11. Like you’ve Just Run a Marathon
During an anxiety attack, I often run out of breath. It’s a strange feeling to have not done any exercise, but still feel out of breath. In these situations, what’s occurring is hyperventilation.
Another time when you feel extremely out of breath is when you’ve run a marathon. So, when explaining why you’re exhausted and struggling to breathe, you can tell people: “I need to lie down. It feels like I’ve run a marathon.”
12. Being Stuck in a Maze
Finding a way to escape anxiety can be hard. When you’re deep inside your anxieties, you are looking for any way to escape it.
It’s like being inside a hedge maze and running from corner to corner, hoping to see the light of the exit at every turn. But the more you run around and look for your exit, the more you feel you’re deeper and deeper inside a maze without an exit.
13. Anxiety is a Bully
A bully is someone who teases you, makes you feel bad about yourself, and doesn’t leave you alone when asked. It sounds a bit like anxiety, doesn’t it!
This is a special type of figurative language called ‘personification’. This means that an inanimate thing (like anxiety) is given the traits of a human to get across a point. Many examples of personification are also metaphors, such as in this case.
14. Waves of Anxiety
You will often talk about anxiety as ‘waves’. If you look at waves in the ocean, they come one after the other. There’s a short break between each wave, but as sure as night follows day, you’ll be facing up against another wave sooner or later.
Similarly, you might experience anxiety for a few days but then it fades. And then again, it will come back a few days later. Or, on a smaller scale, you could be going through something scary and it comes every 5 minutes or so! For me, focusing on something else (video games work for me), I can keep it away, but still every few minutes it might creep back into my mind.
15. A Rocking Chair
There’s a famous saying by Jodi Picoult that: “Anxiety is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but doesn’t get you very far.” In my interpretation, this means that it’s something that’s useless in the long run. You’re focused on it, and this focus on it makes things worse (which is absolutely my experience). But at the end of the day, you’re not making any progress by focusing on it.
So, the message from this saying is that you shouldn’t give it your energy. Instead, focus on productive things that can help improve your mental health, like exercise and learning.
Anxiety metaphors, idioms and similes are useful for explaining how we are feeling and the effect our anxiety is having on our lives. It can be good to use figurative language like this when explaining your situation to family, friends and therapists.
But of course, these aren’t the only metaphors that you can come up with for this topic. In fact, your imagination is your limit. Have a think about your unique situation and how you can explain it in ways that others might understand.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.