How Can We Use Metaphors to Describe Mental Health?

Getting through the day while struggling with mental health is difficult. Trying to be productive isn’t easy when you’re dealing with negative thoughts, a lack of energy or any one of the many symptoms that make existing hard. Nevertheless, millions of people do their best every single day get through things, and one of the best ways to explain that is through metaphors.

Metaphors are used in many areas of life, and they can be very helpful in describing and understanding people’s mental health. Whether it’s a simple story or a more detailed description, a good metaphor can help someone begin to understand the sort of pain and struggle you’re going through. If you’ve ever been told that someone “hasn’t heard it like that before,” you know what I’m talking about. A metaphor about mental health makes it more relatable to those who might not totally get what’s going on – in others or even themselves.

When I was in my therapy session yesterday, my therapist brought up the ‘Bus Metaphor’, which is a popular metaphor for people who are taking part in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (otherwise known as ACT). It can be a pretty lengthy metaphor, but the gist of it is this: imagine life is like a bus route, and you’re the bus driver. You make stops along the way, picking people up and dropping them off. These passengers reflect your thoughts, which means that you can have good passengers and bad passengers. You’re welcome to acknowledge these passengers and even confront them, but at the end of the day, you still have to drive the bus.

There’s a lot more that can go into the metaphor (you can read this description to dive a little deeper), but at it’s heart, it’s a very accurate description of what it can be like being in someone’s head. I identified very strongly with the metaphor, and the wrinkles and specifics that he also mentioned spoke to me too. But I also know that there are plenty of other popular metaphors that people use to talk about mental health. Even if I don’t always feel like they’re describing me, I’ve been through enough to understand where they’re coming from. And that’s a very good start.

Metaphors can also help people understand their own specific mental health issues. For far too long, people were told to describe how they felt as good, bad, or neutral. There wasn’t patience for a longer explanation, even though a longer explanation always would have helped. Mental health is incredibly nuanced, and a one-word answer might be sufficient to deal with people in everyday life, but we should be encouraged to share more. By trying to explain how you feel most days through language, it helps us understand our mind a little more and how we operate.

Since I love words and language, especially when it comes to mental health, it makes sense that metaphors interest me, but I wanted to open the floor to my readers! Do you all use metaphors to talk about mental health? What are some effective/popular metaphors for describing mental health issues that you’ve heard or said? I’m always eager to learn more!


12 thoughts on “How Can We Use Metaphors to Describe Mental Health?

    • Nathan @ MBNB September 17, 2020 / 7:51 pm

      I do wish I had the ability to be more of a straight shooter, it would comen in handy. But I’m glad you have agency over who knows what about you, that isn’t easy to maintain.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Mentally Ill In America September 17, 2020 / 9:08 pm

        Thanks. You are likely exposed to more people than I, so it could be more difficult for you. One day at a time.


  1. quietpersonloudthoughts September 17, 2020 / 3:59 pm

    I love metaphors! I hadn’t heard of the bus one before actually, but it’s a really good one – especially the part about you having to drive the bus no matter what. I found when I was getting ill that I started getting like really visual metaphors in my mind – I think it was my mind’s way of trying to communicate to me what was going on?!

    Sometimes when I’m depersonalised, I describe the feeling as being like having some cling film/saran wrap over your hands and then touching things – it’s like you can feel the objects, but not fully, if that makes any sense!

    Also when I was first getting really depressed but didn’t know that was what was happening, I had this image in my mind of lots of strings being cut, then just hanging loose and fraying – like my mind was breaking apart and I was just super apathetic about it.

    I wonder if any of those will make sense to you or if some metaphors are just too personal and just reflect my strange brain 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Nathan @ MBNB September 17, 2020 / 7:53 pm

      No worries, they make perfect sense to me! That’s a very good way to describe depersonalization, I don’t think I reflect on the physical sense of it but that’s spot on. I’d say some metaphors can be very personal, but I can think of a few people who’d relate closely to what you’re saying here. Thanks for sharing 😀

      Liked by 2 people

  2. September 21, 2020 / 1:15 pm

    As nurses and therapists, we tended to use lots of metaphors, particularly in CBT where we talk about cognitive distortions i.e. rather than saying Jumping to Conclusions, we use tales of ‘fortune-telling’. Fortune-telling is where someone might anticipate that things will turn out badly in their next relationship, and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact, so why bother dating.

    Or with Polarized Thinking, we talk tales of ‘black and white’ or ‘all or nothing’ like we have to be perfect or we’re a complete and abject failure — there is no middle ground.

    Most patients found these useful.


  3. Laura Orton May 9, 2021 / 12:03 pm

    Hey! This is a fascinating blog thank you. I’m a phd student in the UK, currently researching visual metaphors of mental illness. The reason I found your blog is because I’m looking at the broken brain metaphor – the pictures of a brain breaking into tiny pieces and disappearing. Its quite a common image in the UK to see stock images of this. I believe its damaging as it suggests you can’t put the brain back together again, once broken its permanent etc. I’d never heard the bus metaphor before. I wonder if this can be put into an image – I may give it a go! Thank you for your insights. Laura 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nathan @ MBNB May 10, 2021 / 9:27 am

      Thank you! I love the bus metaphor, it’s one of the first times that a therapist has been able to provide a visual way for me to handle my anxiety. I’ve seen those stock images you’re talking about and you’re totally right, those images aren’t exactly uplifting lol. I’d love to see a finished image if you give it a go!


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