The Metaphors I Use to Cope With Generalized Anxiety Disorder


Over the years of coping with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), I’ve come up with a few metaphors to help describe to others and to conceptualize for myself what my symptoms feel like. Though I’ve been solidly in remission for a few years, the most distressing symptom for me has been depersonalization or derealization.

Depersonalization or derealization can happen anywhere, at any time — much like panic attacks. In this case, the metaphor that has worked for me is to tell myself to “drive the bus,” meaning “keep going, don’t stop (literally) driving the car, having that conversation with that person, working with that client, living my life,” etc. Also, at the same time, don’t push it away or avoid it. Using the “drive the bus” metaphor, I don’t “grip the wheel” (fight the sensation) and “turn the music up loud” (distract myself) to avoid the “screaming passengers” (my scary thoughts that arise when the symptom comes) in the back. Continuing with that metaphor, I also don’t stand up and yell or scream at the passengers — meaning, I don’t struggle or engage with the scary thoughts. In this metaphor, the bus is your life and the passengers would be the noise and tumult of your anxiety disorder. Sometimes the passengers are exceptionally loud and other times not, but either way you drive the bus; you live your life.

Occasionally, I have wanted off the bus — not to end my life, more to curl into a ball and just not be. But I don’t. I won’t. Because I’m here and I want to live my life, so I accept the discomfort and drive on.

I also use this metaphor: I imagine I’m holding hands with my anxiety or walking with it next to me. Here is why this is important: We want to erase the anxiety, and the truth is, we can’t. Anxiety is part of the human experience. But, when you have GAD, a lot of your anxiety is not useful or helpful because there typically isn’t anything to truly be afraid of. Another metaphor I use when the anxiety and fear rise up is, “Is it a lion? Is it really a lion?” No. It’s just a bodily symptom, a temporary change in my body’s state (depersonalization). Or, it’s just a cognitive distortion, my brain responding to the fear and trying to figure out or make sense of this symptom, but because it is afraid it isn’t thinking clearly or rationally.

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However, we can walk with our anxiety, not submit to it, but allow it to simply be. This is when the image of me holding hands with my anxiety helps me to make peace with it, helps me to allow it to just float through me while — at the same time — I move on with my day.

With my depersonalization and derealization, I typically would have a lot of scary cognitive distortion. It would start with a floaty, weird feeling as thoughts rise up that make me feel more anxious: “What if I can’t stop feeling out of my body? What if I never feel normal? What if I go ‘crazy?’ I’m probably going to ‘lose my mind’…”  This can turn into what I’ve now dubbed the Anxiety Tornado — whirling gusts of scary thoughts that simply grow stronger and more frightening. The way I deal with this is to take long and slow breaths and then close my eyes and imagine stepping out of the tornado and back to the present moment. Once I’m out of the tornado, I do some quick cognitive challenging:

“I’ve had this feeling before and I didn’t ‘go crazy,’ I just felt anxious and uncomfortable and floaty, but even with those feelings, I did continue to function.”

Using hard evidence is important in cognitive challenging. I also couple this with what is actually happening in the present moment. For example, “I’m having the feelings of anxiety and worry but am still sitting in the coffee shop and writing this article.”

This is how my metaphors help me conceptualize and explain my condition to others. I even have an index card that I refer to as my “coping card,” that has the bullet points of my metaphors.

• Drive The Bus

• Step Out of Tornado

• Challenge the Thoughts

• Stay in The Present Moment (Breathe)

For more about the use of these types of metaphors, I suggest checking out the workbook “Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life” by Steven Hayes, Ph.D.

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Thinkstock photo via kevron2001

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