Ever since I became interested in photography, I would occasionally read a story about someone who’d used it to help them through an emotional low-point or mental ill health. Little did I realize that I would become one of them, too. Photography has had a positive impact on my life and helped me get through the past year. I was feeling down most of the time after a traumatic event and a particularly rough period of my life. Anxiety and panic attacks became a common feature of my life. But I’ve learned how to use photography to live through it. And live through it well.
The article you’re about to read is a very personal story. It’s more personal than any other article that I’ve written for DIYP. But it’s written with the hope that it can help someone else who might be feeling anxious or depressed. I’ve been through some tough times, and photography’s one of the things that has helped me to not fall apart. I want to tell you more about it and, hopefully, get you inspired and bring you some encouragement.
Anxiety and panic attacks
When I was a kid, it seemed to me that grown-ups have total control over their lives, their emotions, and the decisions that they make. But then I grew up and realized how wrong I was. When I was around 23 years old, I had my first panic attack, but I didn’t know what it was back then. The feeling of almost constant anxiety slowly crept in, without me even noticing it. Sadly, I came to realize how bad I felt when it was already in full swing.
Fast forward to late 2017 and early 2018. Without giving too many details, here’s some context. One of my closest friends took his own life in August 2017. A few months later, I finished a long-term relationship, moved back to my hometown, and started living on my own for the first time. Everything I thought I knew turned out to be wrong.
My life turned upside-down and I felt completely, utterly lost. Both my body and my mind reacted to the amount of stress I had experienced in such a short period of time. I lost 10kg (20 lbs) in a month. I mean, yay for abs, but that wasn’t the way I wanted to lose weight. The weight loss and stress levels led to a very concerning health issue. All this combined made me constantly feel anxious, worried, and terrified. Just the everyday noises and sights on the street would leave me over-stimulated and I couldn’t sleep. Panic attacks became more common than ever.
Right after moving back to my hometown, I started psychotherapy. I wanted to learn how to deal with my constantly over-stimulated senses and anxiety, but also how to get rid of my anger and frustrations. I learned how to prevent panic attacks a long time ago, but sadly, I’m not always in the position to do it. I was overwhelmed with anxiety, overthinking, and plenty of negative, confusing emotions and thoughts. I wanted out of it!
Alone in a crowd
When I started living alone, I would shift between constantly hanging out with people and being alone in my flat for a week, talking to no one. Most of the time, I was alone with my thoughts, stuck in a vortex of negativity, anticipation, and fear. Even when I was in someone else’s company, I would feel alone. I started to feel detached from the real world as if I’d been merely a passive observer of my own life.
To make things clear, I haven’t been diagnosed with depression, and I hate it when people call it “depression” when they just feel down. I believe it’s normal to feel bad after a huge trauma and a difficult time. But, this surpassed each and every one of the “down” periods I had before, both in duration and intensity.
During this period, I would often bail on my friends because I couldn’t stop crying and I didn’t feel like going anywhere. On one of those particular nights, I took out my camera and started to take self-portraits. This by itself wasn’t unusual, but something was different.
How photography has helped me, and how it could help you
I know it would sound cheesy to say that photography magically “cured me.” It hasn’t. But it has helped immensely. Maybe it could help you, too. Or maybe it won’t – but it can’t hurt to share.
That night when I took the self-portrait that felt ‘different’, I was torn by fear and sadness. I felt like I was suffocating. But as I gave my attention to the camera settings, framing and posing, I slowly started to feel better. I was focused on something else. I was creating, as I have been for the past ten years… But I was also telling my story.
The photo I ended up with wasn’t technically flawless, but it’s one of the most personal photos I’ve ever made. I posted it to Flickr along with a short story behind it. And in the weeks that followed, I took a few more photos that expressed how I felt. Each of them was made when I felt at my worst, and every time the process of taking and editing photos would help me. I wasn’t as excited as I usually am when photographing, but I was feeling less bad. This was progress.
I know that photography can help when you’re simply feeling down, but I believe the same even if you are diagnosed with depression. There are many artists who use it to cope with the condition (I’ll share some links below), and in my opinion, there are probably two main reasons why it works.
First, expressing yourself and telling your story really helps, no matter how much we’re taught not to talk about our feelings or mental health. Not everyone is willing or able to do it in words, but talking about it is good for you – even if you “talk” through images. Another thing is that the very process of creating can make you feel better. You get away from your dark thoughts for a while and focus on something else. You create and you get to see the result of your efforts. For me, something like that is always a welcome “boost.”
Here are some amazing projects made by artists struggling with depression and/or anxiety:
Anxiety and panic attacks
Whenever I feel distressed and anxious, I simply grab my camera, go for a walk and take photos around the city. Simple as that. That “focusing on something else” part I mentioned earlier helps to calm me down. Even if I can’t go out, for whatever reason, I take photos here in my flat: I photograph food, play with lights or macro photos, shoot some self-portraits… Whatever, as long as I have the camera in my hands to keep me occupied.
But what about panic attacks? If you’ve had them, you know how unpleasant and terrifying they are. As I mentioned earlier, I have found some ways to prevent them before they happen, but it’s not always possible. And I’ve realized that taking photos helps me in this case as well.
When I’m in a public place and can’t find a quiet spot to do some breathing exercises, I grab my smartphone. Luckily, it’s totally normal to photograph everything and anything with your phone nowadays, so no one will look at me as if I were a weirdo. In these situations, it’s not about trying to make a work of art, tell a story or anything like that – it’s merely about escaping from my over-stimulated senses. When I pay attention only to what my camera sees and how best I can capture it, it gradually calms me down and prevents a panic attack. Try it next time if your regular techniques don’t work or you can’t engage with them.
Conclusion and additional reading
Of course, there are other things to do to improve your life and feel better. Talk to a therapist and your friends and family. Cut out sugar, processed food, and alcohol: you wouldn’t believe how much they harm not just our bodies, but also our minds. And start exercising, it’s proven that it increases the production and release of serotonin. But if photography is your hobby or profession, incorporate it as your friend and ally in difficult times.
As I mentioned, photography isn’t a magical cure that will solve all your problems, but I firmly believe that it could help you through them. In my case, it has helped me in two ways. I was “talking” about my feelings through photos when I felt at worst, and it eased the burden. Also, focusing on camera settings, framing, ideas and/or posing has helped me to escape my overwhelmed senses and rushing thoughts. It still helps me whenever I feel a panic attack coming on, and I believe it always will.
If you’re going through a rough time, I hope that it at least helps to know that you’re not alone. I hope that my story will help inspire you and encourage you at least a bit and make you try something new to help yourself. As for me, I’m feeling better now. Still struggling with some of my demons, but giving them a camera to play with makes them leave me alone at least for a while. : )
Here are a few more articles on how photography can help you cope with mental and emotional issues. I hope you’ll find both them and my story inspiring and helpful.
- How to use photography as self-therapy to help relieve stress and get through the tough times
- Creatives against depression: how it feels and how to progress
- How photography can help you fight depression
- Healthy body + healthy mind= success
- Photography is an antidepressant
- Why photography matters and how it helped me overcome depression
- An Emmy-winning filmmaker talks about depression in the industry