Metaphors in the description of post-traumatic symptoms

Research output: Unpublished conference presentation (presented paper, abstract, poster)Conference presentation (not published in journal/proceeding/book)Academic researchpeer-review


Psychological trauma is the experience of overwhelming negative emotions as a result of an extremely distressing event. Because the feelings are rather abstract and thus difficult to describe with purely literal expressions, speakers often resort to metaphors for more effective communication. Previous studies on trauma metaphors mostly focused on the speakers’ description of general traumatic feelings, and only scant attention was paid to metaphors about more specific and clinically measured symptoms such as dissociative thinking, re-experiencing, and avoidance. While the symptoms are known to have distinct clinical manifestations, whether and how the differences are reflected in the speakers’ use of metaphors remains an interesting question. Based on semistructured interviews with 46 people who were traumatized by the latest social unrest in Hong Kong, this study explored the relationship between the speakers’ use of metaphors and the five post-traumatic symptoms. Two major aspects were investigated: i) a correlation analysis was performed to examine how psychometric scores of different post-traumatic symptoms were associated with the use of various metaphor variables, for example, source and target themes, conventionality perspective, and emotional valence, and ii) a qualitative analysis of image schema was conducted for metaphors that provide a direct description of specific symptoms. Results show that the scores of different post-traumatic symptoms are significantly correlated with the use of many different aspects of metaphor, revealing contrasting patterns at the symptom level. Metaphors that are typical of different symptoms also show interesting contrasts at the image schematic level. Although the participants had no professional knowledge about the symptoms and their clinical distinctions, they actually described corresponding feelings in terms of experientially distinct constructs. Image schemas about spatial movements, space relations, and force were the most frequently used. This study suggests that the experience of clinically measured symptoms could be an important factor in explaining metaphor variation. The findings also highlight space and force concepts as key building blocks in the understanding of post-traumatic symptoms.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021
EventThe 14th conference for the Association for Researching and Applying Metaphor (RaAM) - Vilnius University, Lithuania (virtual)
Duration: 23 Jun 202126 Jun 2021


ConferenceThe 14th conference for the Association for Researching and Applying Metaphor (RaAM)


  • metaphor usage profiles
  • post-traumatic symptoms
  • psychometric variables
  • image schemas


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