Depression is high on my Incredibly-important-topics-that-we-humans-struggle-to-make-sense-of list (with a list at least I can impose some order on things that are nearly impossible to grapple with otherwise). It’s prevalent — within a single year, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 6.7% of American adults over age 18 have struggle with depression.
And depression is really hard to wrap our heads around, whether we’re experiencing it or not. For one, we can’t really see it — people with depression look just like people without. Depression continues to challenge scientists — why do some people experience depression while others don’t? Why do some treatments work for certain patients and not for others?
Even though it’s a challenge to really understand depression, we still find ways to make some sense of it. One of those ways is through metaphor. We describe depression in terms of things we have more concrete experience with — enemies in war, darkness, lowness, or burdens, for example. Metaphors can both reflect and shape our thoughts about concepts like depression. Research gives some glimpses into the relationship between the metaphors we use to describe depression and how we think about it or actually feel. But there’s still so much we don’t know about depression metaphors and their effects on cognition. Here I present some of what research does reveal, sprinkled with my own speculation.
Depression as down
In English, it’s common to talk about sadness as feeling down. Depression is not the same as sadness, but it’s also often associated with being physically low. One reason might be that when we’re feeling sad or depressed, our bodies are often slouched or closer to the ground than when we’re feeling great. This idea that our natural bodily experiences, for example hanging our heads or looking down when we feel depressed, can give rise to conventional linguistic metaphors like “down in the dumps” is called Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT). CMT’s main claim is that linguistic metaphors reflect the way we already think about concepts. In other words, we say we need a “pick-me-up” because in our minds, depression is down in the same way that the ground is down. The literal and figurative meanings of depression are associated in mind.
Depression as an enemy
Depression can be something that people fight or slay, or they may be beaten or attacked by it. On one hand, this might be a productive framing, since it implies that people can do something about their situation. They can choose the most appropriate weapons in their arsenal to strike back against their depression enemy.
But for the same reason, the enemy frame may be counterproductive. Many aspects of depression are outside a person’s control, which can be especially hard to understand if we haven’t personally experienced it. In this case, suggesting that a person should fight harder or better may backfire, implying that someone who doesn’t seem to be able to beat depression is too weak. There’s a fine line here.
Depression as darkness
Darkness is another common metaphor for talking about depression. The origins may be similar to talking about depression as being down. When it’s cloudy or rainy, we often feel a more blah than when the sun is out (this association is especially relevant for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder).
Again, talking about cloudy and rainy days as a basis for understanding depression conflates very normal sadness with depression, and clinical depression is so much more than a cloudy day feeling. But our experiences with dark, cloudy days may create a foundation for thinking about both common sadness and depression. Even when we’re indoors, dark spaces are often associated with fatigue and negative feelings.
Depression as a physical burden
It’s also common to think of depression as a physical burden we carry around. Fortunately, burdens can be unloaded, and research has documented positive experiences in psychotherapy can bring about a feeling of unloading a depression burden.
In fact, dynamicity seems to be a productive feature of many depression metaphors. Just as a burden can be unloaded, things that are dark can be brightened, low can be lifted, and enemies can be defeated (or become allies). Even though these metaphors are quite different on the surface, they also have similarities and seem to be compatible with each other.
Depression as multiple things at once
We mix metaphors naturally in speech. Referring to depression an enemy, for example, doesn’t mean I won’t then refer to it as a being down or dark (or that someone else I’m conversing with won’t, as you can see in the short Twitter exchange that follows):
This next tweet also shows a blend of multiple metaphors. The text refers to hitting “rock bottom,” while the image shows a dark cloud. The words and image “say” different things, but we naturally integrate them into one mental image of a low, dark depression.
And depression can be a dark enemy:
Or a dark physical burden:
These mixed metaphors aren’t confusing at all. We don’t feel like the simultaneous depiction of depression as being both dark and a burden conflict because depression can be both things at once. Metaphors don’t create rigid structures that define our thoughts, but instead they create templates for thinking that can be overlapped and mixed and matched.
Are there ideal metaphors for depression?
On the whole, probably not. Each person will have their own preferred metaphors for making sense of depression. It’s key to be conscientious of the metaphors you encounter and produce, and to evaluate what they imply about mental illness. And if no conventional metaphors seem fitting, you might try designing your own or considering Bruce Springsteen’s comparison of depression to a car:
I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?