Three Metaphors and Exercises to Deal With Rumination and Anguish

If you don't stop thinking about a topic or you tend to get too attached to your worries, these metaphors will help you see things differently.
Three Metaphors and Exercises to Deal With Rumination and Anguish
Cristina Roda Rivera

Written and verified by the psychologist Cristina Roda Rivera.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Rumination and intense feelings of distress feed off each other. In addition, rumination acts as a negative reinforcer. Sometimes, it makes you avoid experiencing feelings that you classify as negative due to the social value you grant to them. In fact, with your rumination and anguish, you believe that you’re neutralizing them. However, not familiarizing yourself with them and avoiding them at all costs is detrimental to your mental health.

The worse the strategies are that you use against the discomfort that different internal events generate, the more you tend to withdraw from other vital events that could prove to be new, genuine, and creative.

Some people, in their goal of avoiding rumination and unpleasant sensations even engage in long-term, highly disabling escape behaviors. For instance, drugs, gambling, compulsive shopping, excessive work or exercise, social isolation, etc.

How to deal with rumination and anguish

woman worrying

Next, we’ll share some metaphors to help you relate to your mental activity in a different way. That’s because your persistent thoughts often lead to rumination and anguish. You tend to think that they’re telling you something important about life and yourself. However, in reality, it’s almost always just mind noise.

Giving too much importance to rumination gets you hooked on it in such a way that you feel like you have to stop your life and listen to what it’s telling you. So what should you do with rumination and recurring automatic thoughts? Eliminate them? No. Both fortunately and unfortunately, your thoughts can’t be eliminated in the same way that you remove dust.

As a matter of fact, our thoughts have been warning us about things that could go wrong since time immemorial. That’s why they frequently tend to be threatening in content or character. Therefore, eliminating them completely isn’t something you can do at will. Nevertheless, you can reduce their intensity and appearance if you relate to them differently.

You can’t eliminate your thoughts by wishing them away. Furthermore, internal thoughts and events often appear automatically and unwittingly. As we mentioned earlier, to better relate to your internal events, you can use a series of metaphors and experiential exercises.

1. The pieces of an unfinished puzzle

This is an exercise to be done preferably under the guidance of a mental health professional. Lay out a few medium-sized puzzle pieces. You need to be able to draw or write on them.

Reflect on all the topics that have obsessively and incessantly inhabited your thoughts since childhood. For example, interpersonal rejections, assumptions about concrete facts, physical complexes, etc. Write each one down on a puzzle piece.

If at this moment, you feel an inner discomfort, don’t fight against it. Try to be aware of its influence when it occurs. Remember the many moments that you avoided, ran away, or didn’t come to a conclusion simply because you took refuge in rumination and in your internal world to draw supposedly ‘true’ conclusions about others and your life situation.

Next, try to match the puzzle pieces. Unfortunately, few pieces will fit together. In fact, they won’t seem to build anything relevant or shaped. These pieces reflect the amount of content in the form of rumination that’s determined your life but never led you to build something significant.

On the occasions when you’ve managed to act despite the appearance of rumination, you’ve had new and unique experiences. They may have confirmed the worst of the rumination, contradicted it, or simply let it be. However, what’s important is that, on these occasions, putting aside the idea of being right made it easier for you to encounter new experiences that separated you from isolation and passivity.

At this moment, do you have more jigsaw pieces in your head that you can’t fit together? Are you aware that the discomfort they’re causing you is only temporary? You must recognize that there’ll always be a new piece with a different theme trying to fit into your mind. Even if you don’t find the desire right now to act, despite experiencing those internal events, ask yourself if that could change in the future. Can you improve your quality of life despite ruminating and harboring unpleasant emotions?

2. The treadmill metaphor

Have you ever been on a treadmill at the gym? It’s quite relaxing, but imagine that your walking or running journey is plagued by constant rumination. Your goal is to be able to walk at a steady pace, however, everyday worries begin to take over.

You begin to worry that you’ve left many of your obligations unfinished and feel anxiety while you’re on the treadmill. You remember that you have to buy something, call someone, or finish some administrative process that you find particularly overwhelming.

However, your daily goal is to exercise at least one hour a day. Whenever you do, you feel better. You release endorphins, and your body activates and relaxes at the same time. You feel your body releasing toxins and, for the rest of the day, you feel better.

That said, you still can’t find a way to stop the thoughts that assail you and the guilt that obstructs you, as well as the feeling that you’re not where you should be. Your thoughts are like an antigravity force that pulls you away and stops you from reaching your daily goals.

Instead, try to imagine your thoughts as accompanying you as opposed to standing in front of you and preventing you from walking. Let them listen to music with you. If you’re watching TV, invite them to watch with you. If you can do this, you’ll optimize your time, not waste it.

After all, your passage through life is like walking on a treadmill. Your rumination overwhelms you when you’re doing something and sends you to a place or situation that you don’t want. You think of bills, fights, or bad memories.

Sometimes, you can simply allow these thoughts to accompany you while you carry out what you intend to do. However, on other occasions, you pay attention to them. On these occasions, you experience both your thoughts and emotions as something so aversive that you even avoid life and certain situations to ignore and neutralize them. You need to be aware of everything that getting off the treadmill and living in the long term implies.

Woman thinking

3. The Mr. Potato Head Metaphor

Do you remember the Mr. Potato toy? It’s entertained many children for ages and continues to do so. It consists of making up the face of a doll with really striking features.

Now think, how many times have you tried to mold people into your own thinking as if they were Mr. Potato Head? Instead of physical attributes, you presuppose in them personality characteristics that adapt to what you expect.

At certain times, you need people to be fun, available and introduce you to new social settings. At other times, they must agree with you, share values with you, and behave ethically. In effect, you’re trying to form a human Mr. Potato Head to your own liking. However, what you create in your mind will always end up consuming you.

In fact, you make too many assumptions and demands on another human being, one who has faults and virtues, just like you. Furthermore, your Mr. Potato never seems to be perfectly formed, causing you to stop playing with anyone who even resembles him. But stopping playing means stopping having fun and avoiding contact with other people. It’s probably happened to you many times.

Think and reflect. Is that the kind of social link you want? It may be that some of your demands and expectations are keeping you from real experiences with others, beyond what you’re trying to build on them.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Guacanéz, M. A. A., & Forero, I. A. U. (2021). Terapia de Aceptación y Compromiso y uso de metáforas para promover flexibilidad psicológica. Indagare (9).
  • Pérez, M. L. V., Sánchez, B. S., Lahera, B. H., & Bebber, M. (2018). Aplicación de la terapia de aceptación y compromiso (ACT) en un adulto con rumia. In Avances en psicología clínica 2018: Libro de capítulos del XI Congreso Internacional y XVI Nacional de Psicología Clínica (pp. 261-273). Asociación Española de Psicología Conductual AEPC.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.