Metaphors for depression (A brief understanding)

This blog guide will provide you with insights into what metaphors in depression actually mean, we will also present some of the analogies and recurrent metaphors that are used to describe and explain depression. Some informative ways to help your friends and family, who are struggling with depression, are also elaborated.

What is a metaphor for depression?

Metaphors are usually a figure of speech that we use, to make a comparison between two things that can be very different but have something in common. For example, “time is money”. Time is not literally money yet the essence of time is described by its association with a monetary attribute; hence time can be stolen, spent, precious, and so on.

A Similar idea can be employed to explain depression. Here are some common metaphors that are repeatedly used to decrypt depression.

Bottled up

Bottled Up is a typical metaphor, used in disclosure along with expressions like stuck, contained, and so on. The idea that creeps up on you that “nobody understands” may allow you to feel trapped, like you have no one to talk to. Feeling trapped in your mind is another way to explain your stagnant state, the ability of depression to prevent you from recovering and healing. Thoughts that are not your own have tainted your conscience and your mind has become the source of your poisoning.


Depression is more than just a gloomy mood. Many people have described it as a controlling power or a force. It portrays the struggle to conquer depression’s overpowering ability to control thought, movements, and emotions; a constant battle that your mind and body fail to overcome. The more you try, the deeper you are pulled into it. 


Burden metaphors are very frequent among client-counselor conversations. Since isolation is prevalent among depressed people, whether it is emotional or physical, the feeling that you are not wanted is one of the first things that every patient inevitably suffers from, in depression. Hence there is a load, a burden. This could also be taken relative to being bottled up or enclosed, entrapped in your mind. Some people have described their life as a burden, too heavy for them to bear. Under the influence of depression, every day is a fight, a test, a battle.

If you have ever felt this way, you should know that there are others out there who face similar challenges, if not the same. You are not alone.

On the same subject, the major metaphors that structure the concept of depression are mentioned as feeling low, down, or more perceptive analogies like under a cloud of darkness, and others referring to it as notions of confinement, weight, and lack of control.

Are metaphors really that common among depressed people?

To put it shortly, yes they are.

How can you explain something that you haven’t yet been able to understand worse yet even recognize yourself.

Humans can only comprehend abstract and complex phenomena by metaphorizing them with concrete, relatable, measurable (to some extent) phenomena, and they have been widely doing so. This is called the conceptual metaphor theory. Depression, according to CTM, is also an abstract quality that cannot be visualized or quantified.

Thus, how do you describe something that you can’t see? 

By connecting it to a well-known concept, an embodied term, one that you can recognize.

Metaphors are the most expressive tools to provide relativity to a source domain which are the concepts from which we draw inferences. In other terms, it is a perfect method to visualize one’s concepts, especially in the mental health department. They are linked to processing and expressing emotion, making them critical for counselors to understand, confront, and use

If you come across these metaphors in your speech, or if you notice them frequently around you, from your friends or loved ones, they’re in trouble.

Different analogies for depression (a list of experiences)

Even though it is a mental illness that affects us in similar ways, every person might experience it differently. These are some distinct depression analogies I have gathered personally, that may help anyone who has never been depressed, understand depression in some respect.

  • A trap, you’re in a trap, and it’s a spiral, the more you try, the more you get stuck, and it’s just black, like a black cloud, you can’t shift it. You wake up, it’s there, you go to bed, it’s there.
  • I feel like I’m in a deficit because my mind and my brain are not working properly.
  • The feeling of not working to do anything.
  • I was uninterested, unmotivated, and spent most years spaced out. I was there, but I wasn’t.
  • I constantly feel smothered, choked, and frustrated, as if I’m being suffocated. It’s a constant ache that I can’t escape.
  • I feel as if there are weights chained to my legs and dumbbells attached to my arms. I want to get up but I’m weighed down.

These analogies provide relatable experiences of self disclosure, to someone who is struggling to understand what’s going on with them, or with their loved one. 

Metaphors for depression (Research-based approach)

Metaphors have a very significant role in diagnosing, interpreting, and counseling depression.

In a particular study, different metaphors explored by women articulated the effects of depression they had experienced. Although this research was strictly gender-specific, the metaphors they described were similar to the common metaphors that we come across in our everyday lives, to explain the conceptualization of depression. Below are some recurring metaphors mentioned by these women.

Immobilizing of the self (trapped)

The immobility of self here meant being trapped or imprisoned in a state, suggesting the chronic quality of depression, evoking a loss of control and sense of stasis, making it a challenge to move on to recovery.

Falling (descending into the state of depression)

Metaphors such as falling, descending, crashing were usually followed by phrases like into a pit, hole, hell, forest, well, and other similar expressions. The idea here that may have led to such concepts could be the loss of control. Falling or descending into a pit, could also depict losing one’s sense of self and identity. This feeling may also come from a sense of hopelessness that you may experience because of the overwhelming and trapped effect of being overpowered or buried.

An invisible self (darkness, blackness)

Darkness and fog brain, metaphors linked to or similar to an invisible self, were also employed to characterize depression. These expressions could be a sign of being overwhelmed or clouded. When you are unable to explain what’s going on, it’s like a cloud around you that won’t lift, obstructing your ability to reason and comprehend.


Some women employed metaphors like imbalance, deficit, and abnormality to describe the feeling of stasis and losing sense of self.

Similarly, the metaphors such as battling, working through, slipped, fought were noticed in their narratives and views and their journey to control and recover from depression.

This study turned out to be very informative in terms of interpreting emotional distress and helping mental health specialists reflect on the conversations with

Patients. However, all participants faced an interpretive difficulty as they attempted to build self-knowledge about their feelings, mental processes, and several other factors. 

How to talk to a depressed person?

There may come times when your friends try to reach out to you, or when a person, whom you know is suffering, is finally ready to talk about it. This is a very crucial phase that can either help them get through to the next step of recovery, or it could actualize their deepest,darkest fear, which in reality is just the chemical depression talking.

Bill Bernat, a former patient who had recently recovered, explained it perfectly as “depression doesn’t diminish a person’s desire to connect, just his ability.”

Your words can be misinterpreted in a variety of ways, especially to a depressed person who is basically a loose cannon- waiting to explode. Even though you’re genuinely trying to help them, they could end up feeling worse. 

Here are some changes you can make to your speech to reduce the negative interpretations that can occur while speaking with someone who is depressed.

 “Help me understand”

Using open-ended statements like “help me understand” or “tell me what it’s like” instead of “I understand what you’re going through”, to urge them to talk about it while being empathic and non-pushy might be a good way to get them to open up.

“I may be wrong, but”

Don’t try to compare every situation to your own. To a depressed person, it could seem hollow and irrelevant. However, if you have personally dealt with depression, self-disclosure could be very powerful.

It is safe to start with phrases like I may be wrong,but, or similar ones that would not provoke them or cause them to react negatively.  As a person who has seen a close one juggle with therapists, outbursts are very common among such encounters with counselors using less subtle, offensive, and defensive tones as rejection can be a defense mechanism; it’s easier to react negatively than to open up and face it head-on.

Fortunately, you are a good friend, and all you have to do is listen, and be there for them. Even if they react, remember that it’s just the despair expressing itself.

“I” instead of “you”

Lay off of accusing tones and resentment toward your friend even in the simplest matters like “you don’t hang out with us anymore” or “you shouldn’t be so distant”. Instead, use terms like “I’ve noticed” or “I’m concerned” to show them that you genuinely worry about their well-being and that they are missed.

One of the most off-putting things one can say to a depressed person is “Snap out of it” or “get over it”. Depression is medically defined as not being able to do those things.

There are a lot of things that could go around your objective, but the vibe you’re giving out is something that can’t be described in words. Instead of making them feel like an alien for feeling the way they do, make an effort to connect with them. Give them a sense of belonging and try to be a safe space where they can be who they want to be, without judgement

Different approaches for the use of metaphors

There are two main approaches to why metaphors can be used in psychotherapy.

1. Conceptualization of major themes like anger, fear, depression, etc. The metaphors used by the patients usually represent their conceptualized experiences.

These client-generated metaphors are used in client assessment and counselors who are assisting clients with emotional change may find them useful. Client-generated metaphors describe the patient’s perception and conceptualization of his personal experience. Hence this assessment could also involve working directly with these metaphors to understand relationships, and using these conceptual aids to integrate new perceptions as a tool for therapeutic purposes.

Several models explain that client metaphors can be used to facilitate insight. The way it works is by beginning the conversation with the counselor asking to elaborate the metaphor, following up about the details including the emotions connected to that metaphor, directing the client to relate the metaphor to past experiences and future goals. 

2. To adopt a functional approach in finding the effectiveness of a metaphor, promoting positive changes in the therapeutic process. This approach is used by mental health specialists to facilitate the therapeutic process.

The metaphors might be as simple as a couple of sentences with a clear target and source domain, or they can be as long and complicated as a story. Furthermore, the investigation of the metaphor may be quick or more complex, depending on the client’s ability to understand and recognize the metaphor as well as the goal for which the metaphor is meant.


This blog briefly gives an understanding of the importance of metaphors in cognitive linguistics. It also sheds light on some common metaphors that are indicative of depression, certain phrases to help you to talk to a depressed person. Furthermore, it includes different approaches employed to utilize metaphors in therapeutic counseling.


What are the disadvantages of using metaphors in therapy?

Metaphors mostly represent a person’s thought process and how he feels. They can also be a source to provide insight to change or mold perspective as the inception of ideas. Although before using such approaches for using metaphors in counseling, it is important to know that some metaphor-based approaches should be avoided in some situations. Although no evidence supports a disadvantageous effect of metaphors even with major psychological disorders, it is advisable to be cautious when using metaphor-based therapy in counseling as metaphor-used therapies help understand and mold cognitive abilities and patterns, which is quite risky and requires precision.

Can you completely cure depression just by relying on cognitive therapy and linguistics?

Although we may think about how physiological effects of our brain are altered by mere talking or therapy sessions, it is true. Studies do show that brain function can be altered by cognitive therapy. Metaphors and linguistic cues have also been shown to have influenced a variety of cognitive domains. Hence mild and even severe forms of depression can be cured by talking and CBT.

Why are metaphors used in diseases?

Medical problems are often easily understood by patients when portrayed as an analogy to provide clarity and effectiveness. For example, it is easier for a physician to explain that the heart works like a pump rather than explaining the whole physiology in medical terms which he might not even understand. Sometimes using metaphors in diseases also help the person understand their condition, and in some cases, soften the blow.


Fullagar, Simone. Immobility, Battles, and the Journey of Feeling Alive: Women’s Metaphors of Self-Transformation Through Depression and Recovery. vol. 22, 2012. Sage Journals,

Wagenar, Alwin E. Metaphor in Professional Counseling. 2 ed., vol. 7,