What does anxiety feel like? These 12 haunting photos sum it up.

This article originally appeared on 11.21.16


Photographer Katie Joy Crawford had been battling anxiety for 10 years when she decided to face it straight on by turning the camera lens on herself.

In 2015, Upworthy shared Crawford's self-portraits and our readers responded with tons of empathy. One person said, "What a wonderful way to express what words cannot." Another reader added, "I think she hit the nail right on the head. It's like a constant battle with yourself. I often feel my emotions battling each other."

So we wanted to go back and talk to the photographer directly about this soul-baring project.


It was Crawford's senior year in college. She decided to make herself the central subject of her thesis. She became determined to realistically capture the crippling effects of her anxiety with her "My Anxious Heart" photo series.

"I just firmly believe that the stigma with mental illness needs to be eliminated," Crawford says.

She hopes the series will help others who may be struggling with anxiety. She wants people to know they're not alone.

These haunting photos are also meant to encourage those suffering with anxiety to reach out to others who perhaps don't understand what anxiety feels like. The more we can understand each other, the more we can help each other out.

Here again are Crawford's 12 poignant self-portraits and captions that show what anxiety feels like for her:

1. "They keep telling me to breathe. I can feel my chest moving up and down. Up and down. Up and down. But why does it feel like I'm suffocating? I hold my hand under my nose, making sure there is air. I still can't breathe."

All images by Katie Joy Crawford, featured with permission.

2. "My head is filling with helium. Focus is fading. Such a small decision to make. Such an easy question to answer. My mind isn't letting me. It's like a thousand circuits are all crossing at once."

3. "It's strange — in the pit of your stomach. It's like when you're swimming and you want to put your feet down but the water is deeper than you thought. You can't touch the bottom and your heart skips a beat."

4. "You were created for me and by me. You were created for my seclusion. You were created by venomous defense. You are made of fear and lies. Fear of unrequited promises and losing trust so seldom given. You've been forming my entire life. Stronger and stronger."

5. "A glass of water isn't heavy. It's almost mindless when you have to pick one up. But what if you couldn't empty it or set it down? What if you had to support its weight for days … months … years? The weight doesn't change, but the burden does. At a certain point, you can't remember how light it used to seem. Sometimes it takes everything in you to pretend it isn't there. And sometimes, you just have to let it fall."

6. "A captive of my own mind. The instigator of my own thoughts. The more I think, the worse it gets. The less I think, the worse it gets. Breathe. Just breathe. Drift. It'll ease soon."

7. "I'm afraid to live and i'm afraid to die. What a way to exist."

8. "I was scared of sleeping. I felt the most raw panic in complete darkness. Actually, complete darkness wasn't scary. It was that little bit of light that would cast a shadow — a terrifying shadow."

9. "No matter how much I resist, it'll always be right here desperate to hold me, cover me, break down with me. Each day I fight it, “You're not good for me and you never will be." But there it is waiting for me when I wake up and eager to hold me as I sleep. It takes my breath away. It leaves me speechless."

10. "Depression is when you can't feel at all. Anxiety is when you feel too much. Having both is a constant war within your own mind. Having both means never winning."

11. "Cuts so deep it's like they're never going to heal. Pain so real, it's almost unbearable. I've become this … this cut, this wound. All I know is this same pain; sharp breath, empty eyes, shaky hands. If it's so painful, why let it continue? Unless … maybe it's all that you know."

12. "Numb feeling. How oxymoronic. How fitting. Can you actually feel numb? Or is it the inability to feel? Am I so used to being numb that i've equated it to an actual feeling?"

"I've had a lot of people say that my photographs are too beautiful for what anxiety actually is. That's OK to feel that way, I think they are too! I didn't set out to make it look like the monster I felt," Crawford says. "I wanted clean and simple explanations. I wanted them to almost look numbing, because that's where I was."

Crawford goes to therapy once a week. And she's not ashamed of that. She's also not ashamed to admit that she sits in her car each time, deciding whether she'll attend her appointment or not.

She ultimately does go in and feels better every time. "It's like this thing you've been battling alone is finally being defeated in some way," Crawford says.

The process of creating these deeply literal photographs helped Crawford identify her fear and figure out what led to her anxiety attacks. Although she didn't realize it at the time, she was developing new coping skills even while shooting these self-portraits.

It's important to understand that everyone is struggling with something. We're never alone, no matter how lonely we feel.

"Get help. Always get help," Crawford says. "There are so many resources out there. There is no reason to be ashamed that you need help. If mental illness was treated like physical illness, there would be no more stigma."

By putting her struggles with anxiety out there for the world to see, Crawford is able to help others. She says that feeling alone has changed the way she lives her life.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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