A woman with butterflies in her stomach

Sometimes people forget the ways anxiety can affect you physically, but those who experience it know how its symptoms can move beyond your mind. Back pain, headaches, racing heart and that fluttering feeling in your tummy that is sometimes described as having “butterflies in your stomach.”

Photo artist Anya Anti knows the feeling, and brought it to life in a surreal self-portrait. “Opening” up her stomach, she reveals what you can’t see from the outside — a relatable concept for people who have anxiety, but appear to look “just fine.”

A woman with butterflies in her stomach

The Ukrainian artist who currently lives in New York said the image was inspired the dark thoughts and stress she’s experienced in the last couple of years.

“I don’t talk about it, it’s something that I share only with closest people and even they don’t know completely everything what is happening in my mind. It’s just something that I keep deep inside of me. That’s why this artwork came to life. I express myself not with words but with photographs,” she told The Mighty.

In her work, Anti often uses fantasy to reflect moods and deep emotions — she says art is her way of turning pain into something beautiful.

I just wanted to share what I can’t talk about, but at the same time can’t keep just to myself anymore,” she said. 

You can find more of Anti’s work on her website, or follow her page on Facebook.

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I’m standing in front of the bathroom mirror. I lean close to put on a final coat of mascara. Soon, I’ll be pulling out of the driveway to meet a friend for frozen yogurt. Soon, I’ll be filling up a cup with swirling flavors and sprinkling on toppings. Soon, I’ll be sitting at a table — talking and laughing and smiling.

But at this moment, I’m looking at the reflection of my brown eyes in the bathroom mirror. And at this moment, with no warning, Anxiety bursts in. He crashes into my brain and turns my amiable image of the outing into a picture of disaster. Anxiety hides in the trenches and shoots machine guns of worries into all corners of my mind.

I pick up my brush. What if I show up and she isn’t there? I pull the bristles through my tangled hair. What if I got the time wrong? I put down the brush. What if she only agreed to hang out because she felt bad saying no? I turn on the sink. What if I say something silly? I run my hands under the cold water. What if she thinks I’m boring? I turn off the sink. What if.

I stare into the mirror once again. Oh yes, Anxiety is the king of what ifs. And he chose this day to knock down my defenses with a grand battalion. I wish I could plug my ears to block out his endless stream of worst-case scenarios, but Anxiety lives in my head — there’s no way to silence his voice. I am overpowered by his demanding presence, his machine gun of worries. Part of me knows his words are irrational, but Reason has been pushed out of my mind. Because when Anxiety visits, there’s no room for anyone else.

As I stand frozen in front of the bathroom mirror, I fall prey to Anxiety’s cunning ways. I listen to his list of worst-case scenarios and I cave in to his demands. He tells me to cancel my plans, so I do. Lucky for me, over the years, Anxiety has accumulated a long list of excuses: car troubles, migraines, family emergencies, injured pets, last-minute appointments. I take my pick and text my friend, “So sorry, I think I’m getting sick — rain check?”

I look back into the bathroom mirror. Anxiety seems to have won again. I add “frozen yogurt” to the rain check list of things I’ve had to miss due to my familiar visitor: birthday parties, lunch dates, shopping trips, field trips, sleepovers — it seems to go on forever. I wish that I could have told my friend the truth, but Anxiety makes that impossible. So, once again, I have allowed Anxiety to cancel my plans.

My hands clutch the sink with white knuckles as I glare at my reflection in the mirror. I feel the hot swords of Anger enter my mind — anger at Anxiety for always ruining everything, and anger at myself for always letting him. Time after time I tell myself: next time I’ll fight harder, next time I’ll push him away for good, next time I’ll show Anxiety who is boss. But next time comes and goes and comes again and I never seem to win.

As I glare into the mirror, I hate myself for letting Anxiety beat me every time. I hate myself for being so weak. But then, I step away from the mirror. I look around my room — at my calendar with dates scribbled in, my bookshelf with photo albums of memories, my list of rain checks to follow up on. Maybe Anxiety wasn’t winning. Because every time he showed up, I was eventually able to push him out — he never lasted forever. Anxiety may cancel my plans sometimes, but I keep making new ones.

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Thinkstock photo via Olela


My introduction to anxiety was more of a crash course. At 16 years old, a friend’s lake house, two joints, vodka and Fresca would be the catalyst of my first full-blown panic attack.

Like most people’s first panic attack, irregular breathing, heartbeat and thoughts continued to build until the nausea made me vomit. The out of body experience had fully ensued. For months afterward I would experience residual panics attacks up to three times a day. Had it not been for a school-based, family health practitioner, I wouldn’t have even known what to call this affliction. At a time where I needed answers more than ever, she taught me about the primitive parts of my brain and how they were causing these manifestations. Since the day of my diagnosis, it’s been an ongoing battle to continue understand anxiety disorder and mental health. The evolution of my understanding is starting to excite me.

I won’t want to ramble on about my symptomatic experience. Not today at least. Stories like mine are now so statistically prevalent, it’s likely many could accurately guess most of what I’ve been through symptomatically. To clarify, I do think it is important to be able to share your struggle with others, especially the most immediate people in your life. It has always helped me to be able to announce and own my struggle. So much so that I’ve chosen to do so with the entire world.

Anxiety has given me so much more than fear.

I don’t want to call it a “silver lining,” because that would imply it’s hard to see. Death and despair being the foundation of fear for the human experience is an axiom. It’s the hierarchical master for all human struggle and probably all conscious beings’ struggle. There are many ways to become intimate with despair, but not so much death. Only a near-death experience, or the death of someone close to you, can really illuminate death’s effect for an individual. I’ve found there is another way — anxiety.

In a time where the value of quality of life and life itself is seemingly getting lost in isolationism and dehumanization backed by large population analytics, the reality of death is ever important.

One of the most common testimonies of people with anxiety is the worry and even feeling of death. Over the years as I continued to find myself staring death in the face, at some point I noticed my ability and inclination to be sympathetic grew. Not just sympathetic to people with diagnosed mental health struggles. My sympathy crossed over into all common struggle. My anxiety psychologically forced me to out myself in other people’s shoes. As I continued to come into contact with more people and all their different stories, naturally, questions posed themselves in my head. “What would it be like to literally not be able to feed my children?” “What if my parent was dying?” “What if my loved one was off at war” “What if I was on a drug I couldn’t get off?” “What does it feel like to have a cop point a gun at you?” “What does it feel like to live with the dangers of being a cop?” Those are obviously toward the extreme end of the spectrum of struggle. However those struggles are very common over the course of a lifetime. Simpler struggles became more visible also.

To this day, I shutter at the idea of personally having to navigate these struggles — my anxiety gives me an immediate heavy feeling in my chest and signals to me the heaviness of the plight. The insecurity of being vulnerable and the fear it produces is second nature for those who live with anxiety. Hell, our whole lives are based on internally and externally navigating fear and trying to make ourselves invulnerable when we can, and accepting vulnerably when we can’t.

But again, isn’t that a fundamental part of everybody’s struggle?

(Side note: Because advocates have had to grind so hard just to prove these illnesses are real, I believe a part of us is scared to say every living person is dealing with this. We fear loosing the ground we’ve gained. We have heard the opposition use “commonality” as a tool to attempt to diminish validity and/or priority. Fear not, the validity and priority of mental health does not require consensus, the only way forward is through the truth.)

 

This journey of anxiety has brought me closer to common struggle, helped my perspective on vulnerability and increased my desire to exhibit understanding. It has made me more sympathetic. It also unveiled another axiom for me. If death, despair and fear anchor human struggle, then all struggle involves our mental health. That went off like an alarm in the dead of night. In a society where mental health resources actually continue to be decreased, and a global demographic of epic proportions fights to prove itself important, what is there actually to prove? Mental health is the way we think, feel and interact. We’re all struggling in our own way, at our own time. Struggle is the the only necessary diagnosis. Stress is the only true symptom. Support is the only equitable solution. Mental health research, education and support is quite possibly the most important tool to creating a better quality individual experience and collective society.

Maybe those of us who are stigmatized, cast out and left behind are actually leading the way.

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Image provided by Royce White


Looking at me, talking to me and watching how I interact throughout the day, most wouldn’t believe I am someone with anxiety. The kind of anxiety that leaves me numb, but pained with an unsettling feeling of something being wrong. The kind of anxiety that leaves me in bed all day crying for no reason. The kind of anxiety that steals my appetite or makes me so sick to my stomach that I can’t keep in any food I do manage to eat. The kind of anxiety that causes my heart to skip beats, leaving me breathless. The kind of anxiety that makes me want to fall asleep for days, or not sleep at all.

No, you’d have no idea. But why would you? I can play it off like I’m just fine, I can handle the situation I am in. Granted, the medication I’m on is a great support, but there’s this motivation in me to get through each day, to accomplish something no matter how small. Getting out of bed is something I give myself a small pat on the back for each morning, because it means I’m actually up and somewhat ready for what’s next.

I am a full time college student, meaning I am taking 5 classes a day on campus surrounded by thousands of people. It’s exhausting. I also work with kids six days a week after classes are finished. It’s exhausting. I try to maintain what little of a social life I have. And I do mean little. Whether it’s due to my busy schedule or being too emotionally drained from my daily interactions, I have no desire to spend even more time surrounded by people. Again, exhausting.

I need my down time. Maybe it’s a day in bed binge watching something on Netflix and eating pizza. Maybe it’s a day when I take more than one nap and spend the rest of my time awake still in bed. Or maybe it’s a day when I lay on the couch watching movies with my boyfriend. Whatever it may be, it’s a day to recharge and get over what I like to call a “people hangover.” When the anxiety of making it through each day catches up and I’m in desperate need of alone time, when all the endless interactions finally get to me, I need to recharge and prepare myself for the next round.

You may not be able to tell though. You may have no clue that once I’m home from class, from a long afternoon at work, from a weekend spent with friends, my anxiety tells me to shut down. I can power through it most days, I can play it off that I’m in control. Yes, there are plenty of days I wish I could spend alone in bed forever but I know in the end, it’s time to get back out of bed and start the show all over again.

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Thinkstock photo via OGri.


Sometimes I think my mind is a rabbit hole. Except, instead of bringing me to adventures with cheshire cats and unbirthday parties, it sends me tumbling into a pit of terror where I’m continually forced to battle with my own personally tailored Queen of Hearts. Perhaps you’ve heard of her. Her name is Anxiety. No matter where I am, she always seems to find me. I can be standing on the crest of the mountain, feeling on top of the world, when suddenly — like Alice — I’m tumbling down, down, down. And no matter how hard I try to stop myself, the spiral keeps on spiraling.

And suddenly, I’m reading online about permanent scar damage from the shingles I had a few months ago and I’m convinced I’ll never like my face again. Or I’m obsessing over a recent social encounter I had, replaying it over and over again in my mind to ensure I did nothing to offend someone. Then again, you might find me drowning in tears over intense feelings of doom I can’t even put a description on. The only thing I know is that constantly I find myself falling down the rabbit hole of my mind.

And although I can tell myself repeatedly the thoughts I’m ruminating on are irrational, that doesn’t change their reality. Because although seemingly illogical, they are my reality. You can tell me however many times you want to “just be happy” or to “let it go” or the ever sound advice to “just breathe,” but that won’t change the overwhelming fear when I find myself once again facing the demons whose control over me seems to scream, “Off with her head!”

And sometimes it feels like they’ve succeeded with that.

When I’m laying in my bed feeling too debilitated by fear to move or clenching my stomach from pain during a panic attack or trying to force my eyes to stay awake when everything is so dark that I just want to sleep to escape it all — it seems like the battle is lost and I might as well accept the defeat. When life gets so overwhelming that there doesn’t seem a point in even trying to survive it all, I find myself echoing the words of Alice when the Cheshire Cat asks her where she wants to go and she responds saying, “I don’t much care where.”

But deep in my heart I know that’s not the truth.

The truth is that I have so many places I want to go and so many things I want to do. There is an infinite amount of hope I have for this life. And that is exactly what the anxiety feeds on. It tells me I can’t go there. I can’t do it. I might as well give up. There’s too much potential for failure, pain, rejection.

Yet the words of the Cheshire Cat are interesting. When Alice asks where she should go, he does’t tell her it depends on where she can go. There is no focus on her perception of where she is capable of going. Rather, he suggests, “That depends a great deal on where you want to go.”

And what if that means my desire to overcome the chains of anxiety is enough to defeat this persistent Queen of Hearts? Maybe it means I still possess the ability to stand up for myself and choose to keep moving forward. Perhaps it means that although I may always find myself falling down the rabbit hole, I don’t have to stay there. I can find the strength to pull myself back up.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Bonne Chance.

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