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Gripping Photos Capture What This Woman Feels Like During a Panic Attack

Katie Crawford, 23, is a senior at Louisiana State University. The photography student from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has lived with generalized anxiety disorder for 10 years. When the time came for her to choose a topic for her senior thesis, she decided to convey her anxiety through a series of creatively modified self-portraits.

Image of a woman in a white dress, looking hauntingly at the camera.
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.

Entitled “My Anxious Heart,” Crawford’s photo series depicts how she experiences anxiety.

“I am visually interpreting my own emotional and physical journey so others may be able to understand this weight that so many bear in our society,” she wrote in her artist statement on her website.

Crawford was inspired to create the photographs when she took a class called “Artist as Researcher.” She was assigned a semester-long investigative project about what motivates her as an artist. Having never taken on such a longterm, open-ended project before, Crawford didn’t know where to begin, and she grew anxious.

“Then it clicked,” she told The Mighty. “I wanted to show everyone this thing that followed me and kept me from being able to do the most basic things.”

When she was about 18, Crawford began writing down sentence fragments and bursts of thought each time she had a panic attack to try to encapsulate the difficult-to-describe feelings. Those fragments and thoughts would eventually become the phrases that caption each photograph.

A woman lies in a tub of water.
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 thousands circuits are all crossing at once.
A woman tries to carry water jugs and balances one on her head. They all come crashing down.
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.
A woman in a white night gown curls up, wet, in fog.
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.

Once Crawford began recording her feelings, she was able to identify concrete symptoms.

“I was able to think of literal interpretations to depict what I had discovered,” she told The Mighty. “Not feeling able to breathe when you can? That’s like saran wrap over your mouth when your nose is still free. Can’t get out of bed today? Well, there’s something laying next to you saying that’s OK to do because everything else is scary. Someone asked you to make a decision but you can’t even explain why it’s difficult to do, let alone make the decision? I might as well be trying to swim with fabric covering me as I come up for air.”

A woman stands wrapped in plastic wrap from her mouth down.
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.
A woman faces backwards -- there's a cloud where her head should be.
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.
A woman sits and leans down, her back is full of cracks.
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.

Her aim for the project was to help others, but Crawford was surprised to find that creating these photographs also helped her work through her own feelings.

“All of it was therapy. Every moment,” Crawford told The Mighty. “Each time I spent more than six hours on a shot that didn’t work and I had to start over or give up? Therapeutic. I had to beat it. I didn’t waste those hours, I had the opportunity to make the photo better. I learned self-discipline that I never had. I learned patience with myself that I never had.”

A woman in a white night gown lays curled up next to a figure covered in a black sheet.
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.
A woman wrapped in a black sheet lies on a tile floor.
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.
Two old clocks next to an hour glass. A woman is crouched inside the hour glass.
i’m afraid to live and i’m afraid to die. what a way to exist.

“I just want these photos to begin a conversation,” Crawford told The Mighty. “After a decade-long struggle, it feels amazing to finally have the disorder depicted and available for others to utilize in any way they can.”

A woman has a bird cage on her head, where another image of the same woman sits, trapped.
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.
A woman, naked, crouches and holds her head against a black backdrop.
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?

Crawford is currently working on compiling the photos from this series and others into a book. To learn more about Crawford and see more of her work, visit her website and Facebook page.

Photos courtesy of Katie Crawford.