11 Images That People With Anxiety Will Understand

The most common mental illness in the U.S. is anxiety disorder, with 40 million people currently diagnosed. This number does not include the many people who are either misdiagnosed or never seek help. So, it’s pretty massive — but that also means it’s broad and hard to pin down. What does anxiety mean to individual people? What does it feel like? What does it look

Since spreading a greater understanding about mental illness is one of the most important ways to bring mental health to more people, we decided to interview a handful of readers and R29 staffers about what anxiety really feels like to them. We received a wide range of responses, from jarring, graphic imagery to descriptions of persistent undercurrents.

One described it as their “whole psyche fracturing and bubbling like lava.”

“It’s like a hot, muggy type of suffocation,” wrote another respondent.

“It’s a perpetual electricity running through my chest, scrambling my thoughts into loud static,” wrote another.

To illustrate a handful of these narratives, we tapped photographer Sam Cannon and prop stylist Marissa Herrmann. Together, they created eerie GIFs that show, rather then tell, the visceral feelings that anxiety provokes.

Ahead, 11 descriptions of anxiety, along with accompanying visualizations.

If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.

“To me, it feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest. The worst feeling, where I almost can’t breathe.”

“Anxiety feels like emotions spilling over the edge of a cup, and me trying to grab them with my hands, but failing miserably.”

“More than anything, it feels like a painful rock in my stomach that makes it hard to eat and sleep.”

“A knife going through my heart.”

“At times, it looks and feels like the ocean: waves that aren’t too aggressive, but are consistently breaking against the shore, creeping up the sand, retreating, and breaking again. It’s so overwhelming because it’s a cycle that, in nature, never stops — it just sort of lingers there.”

“A butterfly in my ribs.”

“It’s almost like I’m drowning in a sauna, if that makes sense. It’s like a hot, muggy type of suffocation. Like thick soup.”

“Being a teenager… wanting to throw up, dizziness, tense, afraid.”

“It’s a perpetual electricity running through my chest, scrambling my thoughts into loud static.”

“I actually picture a snake swimming really really fast up and down my esophagus, from my throat to the pit of my stomach in figure-eight shapes, over and over again.”

“I think anxiety, like most things, is useful to a certain degree. It is a huge motivator. But at some point, it switches from pushing you forward to holding you back. The question is, how do you balance on the right side of that very delicate line?”