Metaphors for depression can help you to more effectively explain how you’re feeling to family, friends and professionals. These metaphors might also be helpful to people writing, such as writers writing about characters in a story who might be going through a slump.
Popular depression metaphors include “feeling drained”, “running on a hamster wheel”, “being under a dark cloud” and “being followed by a black dog”. Read or scan below for all 21 ways of describing depression.
Metaphors for Depression
We use the ‘draining’ metaphor very regularly to talk about things that exhaust and frustrate us. We can also switch out the term ‘deflating’ here. It’s the sense that the energy is being sucked, drained or squeezed out of us, leaving us with nothing left to give. We’ll spend days on end in bed or sitting on the couch because the idea of getting up is just too hard. We’ve been drained of energy – you can’t get up and get going because there’s no “fuel left in the tank”.
2. Dark Cloud
Sometimes when the weather is bad and the skies are cloudy you can feel a bit down and out. A rainy day forces us inside and under the covers. We don’t want to do anything.
But for people suffering from depression, every day is a bad weather day. So you can imagine that when someone has a negative mindset, there’s a cloud hovering over their head all day everyday. So we’ll often say that there’s a dark cloud following you around that you just can’t escape. It makes every day a terrible day.
This metaphor is regularly used in cartoons and images of depression where the cloud won’t leave you alone.
3. Black Dog
The metaphor of depression as a black dog comes from Winston Churchill who would say that there was a black dog following him around in reference to his dour moods. The black in this metaphor may refer to the darkness we feel inside. The dog refers to the idea of a dog who is too fond of you and follows you around. No matter where you go, he manages to sniff you out and follow you around like an unwelcome and unwanted companion.
There is a very compelling video of the black dog that talks about how the dog follows a man around and cannot be chased away, no matter what. I’m sure many can empathize:
The shadow metaphor is very similar to the black dog metaphor. It refers to the idea that there is something following you around that you can’t escape. A shadow is something you cannot get rid of forever. It will be there whenever you’re out in the sun. Your shadow is part of you. Similarly, many of us feel like our depression is part of us. It will be there by our sides and no matter how hard we try or how fast we run from it, it will be able to keep up with you and patiently standing beside you no matter what.
The tentacles metaphor is one that refers to the idea that you’re being pulled down or held back by your mental illness. This is the first of many on this list that refer to this idea that you feel held down or constrained.
You can imagine tentacles reaching out to you when you try to run or swim away. They grab at you and pull you back into their embrace. And there’s never just one tentacle, is there! Imagine eight tentacles grabbing at you, overwhelming you with their embrace and refusing to let you go.
6. A Ball and Chain
A ball and chain around the ankle used to be a way of ensuring prisoners and convicts from the British colonies wouldn’t be able to escape. It would hold you to your spot and constrain you from freedom.
The ball and chain metaphor often refers to marriages or long-term (even failing) relationships. A wife who is a ball and chain is a pejorative term for a wife who won’t let her husband enjoy himself. But in this circumstance, it refers to the feeling that depression won’t let you escape from it. You’re chained to it. This metaphor in a sense combines the shadow and tentacle metaphors above, because it both follows you around and holds you down.
7. Trapped on a Desert Island
Imagine being trapped on a desert island for months on end. Imagine the searing heat and sense of starvation as you run out of coconuts to eat (I’m picturing a particularly rough season of CBS’s Survivor here). People trapped on a desert island are slowly dying. As time goes by they’re losing hope for being rescued.
This long, slow sense of isolation, lack of hope, and sense you’re slowly drifting off to nothingness is analogous to depression. When you’re depressed, you feel like you’re never going to be rescued from your desert island.
I think there’s also the idea here that you feel like you’re all alone. No one seems to understand you or empathize with what’s going on in your life.
A lot of people experiencing depression also experience brief highs or a false sense that they’ve escaped their mental health problems, only for them to return a day or week later. This is most common with bi-polar disorders, but many people with depression also feel like they have ‘better’ and ‘worse’ days. The ups and downs of feeling better and worse, better and worse, can be an exhausting, draining experience. And you could relate those ups and downs to a rollercoaster ride.
9. Deep Pit
Imagine being stuck in a pit or well that’s so deep that you can’t claw your way out of it. That’s the feeling that comes from the sense of hopelessness we feel when we have depression. This metaphor is equally as apt because it’s that sense of being underground, buried, and overpowered by the world that seems to be trampling us underfoot.
There’s a sense you need someone to throw down a rope or ladder and pull you out because, on your own, you’re helpless and unable to escape.
10. Feeling Down
Many of the metaphors in this list highlight a sense of ‘downness’ rather than ‘being up’. The idea that you’re down refers to the concept of being trampled or having fallen.
This idiom is very common for anyone who’s having a bad day, and can at times be used in a degrading way to downplay someone’s depression. But at other times you can use this term yourself about yourself to indicate that you’re having a worse day than others.
You could even refer to the “gravity” of depression, highlighting how it pulls you down to the ground.
11. A Mental Prison
Prison (real prison!) is a place that constrains people and doesn’t let them exercise their freedom. You can’t escape. A mental prison is “a prison in the mind” – your mental illness is your enemy, not allowing you to go out and tackle the world. Because of your brain, you’re forced inside and trapped under the blankets for days on end.
This metaphor allows us to express just what a mental illness is doing to you and how it’s making you feel, which can really help express your feelings to others in our life.
12. Rock Bottom
Rock bottom is as deep as you can dig. I’ve already referred to the idea that ‘down’ and ‘deep’ are common in depression metaphors. Rock bottom continues that motif by referring to the idea that you’ve dug and dug and hit a layer of rock that means you can’t dig any more.
It’s another way of saying you’re “at your lowest point in life”.
The good thing about rock bottom is the only way is up – so you might use this term when you finally decide to get professional help: “I’ve hit rock bottom so my only option was to come and see a therapist.”
13. Trapped in a Maze
Sometimes when you’re depressed you feel like you can’t escape your own mind and can’t find a way toward hope and escaping this feeling. It’s like when you’re in a maze and you’re trying to find the exit. At first it’s not so worrying and you start looking for ways out. But the more corners you turn the more panicked you get until you feel desperation and lack of hope.
This feeling is a common one for people suffering from mental health problems and a good way of explaining your desperation and struggles to others.
14. A Hamster Wheel
The hamster wheel is a very common metaphor we use for working the 9-5. It’s this sense that every day of your life you’re working really hard but you’re not really going anywhere. You’re just spinning the wheel and standing still.
But I’ve heard people use this term to explain depression as well. Because every day feels the same. You try so hard each day to make this day better than the previous. But every day you’re mentally exhausted, trying new ways to improve, but you feel like you’re not making any progress at all.
15. Sinking in Water
There are two sinking metaphors you can use here. The first is sinking into water. This metaphor refers to the idea that you’re stuck in an ocean and unable to swim, You start sinking and reaching out for the air above, but it keeps fading and getting further an further away. This feels a lot like the desperation of depression, where you can feel the life you want to lead getting out of grip and slowly fading from your horizon. Before long it will be a distant memory and you’ll be stuck deep underwater.
16. Sinking into Quicksand
The second sinking metaphor refers to the idea of sinking into quicksand. People sinking into quicksand can’t lift their legs to get out. They’re trapped right there with no escape.
And the worst thing about quicksand is the more you wiggle and fight the more you sink. Many people with mental health problems can relate to this. You try as hard as you can to get your head clear and positive, but it seems no matter what you do and how hard you try, you just keep getting into a worse and worse frame of mind.
17. Fighting an Invisible Enemy
When you’re fighting an invisible enemy it’s really hard to win!
And there are two ways to look at this. The first is that mental health problems can’t be seen by others. When someone with a physical disability is struggling they often get more help and more sympathy because their pain is visible. But with mental health problems, you’re often told to “suck it up” because people can’t really see that you’re having a tough time.
Then there’s the idea that you’re fighting something but you can’t pin it down to beat it. An invisible enemy comes up behind you and causes you grief. It’ll tap you on the back when you least expect it, and because you can’t see it, you can’t stop it from sneaking up on you and breaking you down.
18. Life without Color
You’ll often see that documentaries about depression are shot in black and white. And that’s because we often associate color with joy and happiness. Black and white life lacks the flair and pleasure of colorful life. That’s why, for example, children shows and sweets shops are so full of color and light.
So the idea of life without color is symbolic of how people who are depressed feel as if they have no joy or happiness in their lives. We might say that our life is “greyscale” or “monotone” to explain this sense that you’re unhappy and cannot see joy around you.
19. Melting Down
You can visualize an ice sculpture or snowman slowly melting and losing shape. And sometimes that’s what it feels like to be depressed. You feel yourself slowly fading and losing shape. The first thing to go is the clear sharp edges – the sense that your life is put together and you’re in control. But before long you feel like you’re dripping into a puddle. Your life runs out of structure or purpose.
A ‘melt down’ can also refer to a moment when someone loses complete control and starts crying. And it’s not uncommon for someone who’s depressed to melt down regularly due to the sense of despair.
20. Having a Flat Battery
A car that’s got a flat battery won’t start! And sometimes you’ll wake up and feel the exact same way. You can’t get that spark to get going. So you just stay in bed or in your pajamas all day long.
The car with a flat battery also doesn’t have any energy in it – that’s what it means to have a flat battery! So, that sense of lack of energy is also built into this metaphor.
21. Swimming Against the Tide
Lastly, you might say that when you’re depressed you feel you’re swimming against the tide. This one is very similar to the hamster wheel metaphor. When you’re swimming against the tide, you’re paddling and working really hard to achieve incremental improvements, but the tide continues to push you back and feel like you’re not improving at all. Similarly, when you are suffering from mental health problems, you’ll often feel like your efforts are futile.
And when you stop swimming, even for a moment, the tide washes you back and makes you feel like you’ve made negative progress – it’s worse than ever!
Depression is a horrible, heartbreaking feeling. But with metaphors we can more effectively explain the feeling to others around us. These are just a handful of metaphors for depression that I have found, and I’m sure there are many more. Maybe you could come up with some yourself to help explain your own feelings.
If you’re reading this article and you’re suffering from depression, I unfortunately cannot provide any help, but don’t forget there is professional help available.
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.