Visualising anxiety: What does mental illness look like?

Unlike physical illness, mental illness is largely invisible. This makes it hard for some people to comprehend that it is a reality for at least 20 per cent of Australians each year (with anxiety disorders the most common) and nearly half of us at some point in our lives.

In an effort to make sense of and actualise the experience of anxiety, Jill Simpson, a PhD researcher from the University of York, has published an article on visualising mental illness with an accompanying data art illustration.

“What does mental illness look like? We know how it feels; at least I do, having suffered from anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) for many years,” Simpson says in the article. “But it’s hard to visualise mental illness in the same way we might visualise physical disabilities, and this can make it difficult for people with no experience of mental health problems to empathise or imagine how they affect people’s lives.”

Simpson was inspired by the Dear Data project, self-tracking anything from moods to complaints to clocks and creating striking diagrams based on the patterns.

For all the diagrams and formulas, each piece of data art is “like a fingerprint“, as our personal patterns are unique. Capturing them can provide deeper insight into the individual within the collective human experience. 

“I’ve begun to visualise my own experience of OCD by quantifying my compulsions to check and recheck the same thing over and over again,” Simpson explains of her project. “To collect the data, I tracked my behaviour for a day, noting every time I checked something, the number of times I checked it, and what it was that I was checking. 

“In order to sort through the data, I thought about what I needed to communicate to other people in order for them to understand the impact that OCD has on my life.”

A key to understanding the diagram explains that a blue circle indicates she has repeated an action four times. A pink circle represents an action repeated again “as I don’t trust myself that I checked properly first time round”. 

One detail in the picture shows a pink circle surrounding several blue circles. 

“I checked my front door handle four times. I was feeling anxious and felt compelled to check it was locked another eight times before I could walk away,” Simpson explains.

The process of creating the illustration has helped Simpson see her OCD with more objectivity.

“Visualising my own behaviour has helped me to take a step back from it, to see it as a symptom of OCD rather than a personal failing,” she says.

Whether it’s in private or public, art can be an effective way to manage and understand anxiety and mental illness.

As the attention shifts from the thoughts to the paper, our rattled nervous system can regulate and the non-verbal expression can provide some distance and perspective when feelings are overwhelming.

“Repetitive, satisfying art making may actually mediate depression and anxiety by stimulating the ‘accumbens-striatial-cortical’ connection in the brain. It is perhaps connected to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named ‘flow’, an experience of complete concentration and absorption,” explains psychologist and author of The Art Therapy Handbook, Cathy Malchiodi.

“Because flow is close to other mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga, it may offer many of the same positive, attention-focused benefits through deep engagement in an art process,” Malchiodi says.

Attempting to quantify a personal experience of OCD inevitably strips away much of its complexity, yet data visualisations have the potential to communicate some of the ways in which this form of mental illness affects daily life.