My role: Designer
Time: Dec, 2017
For 21 days, I logged the details of my anxiety on my phone. I kept track of triggering incidents as well thoughts that were going through my head at the time. I ‘plotted’ this data onto fabric through embroidery.
I had 3 main goals with this project:
1) To help me learn more about myself
2) To allow others to learn more about mental health, specifically anxiety
3) To push my boundaries in data design as a creative
After I collected the data, I plotted them using MS Powerpoint to see the trends. Through the process of organizing the data, I identified 5 thought patterns I had:
1) What if I fail?
2) What if I’m not liked?
3) What if I die from this?
4) What if things never get better?
What if I fail? How many times has that gone through your head? Failure is very personal. For a long time, I believed my parent’s love was conditional, and was dependent on how well I performed as a kid. When I go through the process of CBT, I learned that I have an overgeneralized thought that goes like this: “if this doesn’t work out, no one would care about me and everyone would abandon me”. This thought was once useful, it probably even protected me a little. But now, it is beyond vestigial, and has become harmful. In this chart, all the violet lines were times when my anxiety was linked to failure. This usually happened in the evenings and it lasted as long as an hour. This was because I tried to spend some time after work to learn something new, and it turned out horrible. I didn’t want to admit I could not do it, because it would mean I failed. I was then faced with a path where I could not quit nor continue, because either meant failure. So obviously, I procrastinated. However, this feeling builds up, to the point that when I wake up, the first thought I have is that being alive meant countless opportunities for failure. This was clearly becoming a problem. So I finally let go and admitted failure. And after some time, I learned something new about myself and about my strengths. Although anxiety can be crippling, it also drives me. The one thing I truly fear, besides death of people I care about, is becoming complacent. Nothing, absolutely nothing, should scare a creator more than losing motivation to improve their craft. And this, is where my anxiety shines, like broken glass that reflects light like diamond.
What if I’m not liked? Having the need to belong and be accepted is crucial for survival. Humans are social by nature and isolation can kill. I work hard to be a likable person, I put other’s needs before mine and I try all that I can to satisfy. Sometimes, this backfires because I minimize my own needs. This explains why I have workaholic tendencies, I try hard to eliminate mistakes at and deliver far beyond sufficient. The need to be likable is very prominent in many Asian cultures; it helps build relationships with people who can ensure our own survival. However, this trait becomes problematic when it is tied to self-worth. Over the past decade, I learned to become dependent on others to validate my worth. All the yellow lines in this chart shows when my anxiety was linked to fear of not being liked. I was anxious for the entire day on Dec 14. While working hard to meet a deadline, I kept on imagining the disappointed faces people would have if I did not meet the deadline. Seeing disappointment of me from others was strongly tied to me believing I had no value. Something that I learned from childhood. To build an internal system where I am not dependent on others to validate my worth, I have to train my brain to understand that likability is not correlated to self-worth. Being likable and friendly is still an important trait to have. It helps build trust and relationships. But not at the cost of self-worth and more importantly, self-love.
This is a thought that would typically run through your head when you are just about to get on a roller coaster. But for me, I have these thoughts in mundane situations. This cognitive distortion is called Magnification. It is a type of thought that blows things out of proportion. All the red lines in this chart shows times when my anxiety was linked to the possibility of death. On day 9, I was driving and was quite close to hitting a car. After that, I started to ponder about what would happen if I did hit them, and how that could lead to my death. When I observe my family members encountering similar situations, they don’t think twice about it and just move on. This was insightful because I started to understand why I was the most jumpy person in the family, even among my friends. I get scared quite easily and horror movies will literally, knock me off my chair. This is because I am always paranoid and on edge. I expect the worst in things. Having low expectations from a young age meant I could protect myself from getting hurt when I was rejected or when I didn’t get what I worked so hard for. But anxiety is a double-edged sword, ironically, this thought pattern allows me to have immense gratitude. It’s really weird. Despite being very paranoid, negative, cynical, I can still experience joy. Because I expect so much negativity, feeling normal joy becomes very intense for me. I recall one day when I was randomly feeling joy as I was thinking about how much love I receive everyday, and how thankful I was for that. Anxiety has taught me to appreciate diversity in thoughts; it allows me to have empathy for myself and for others.
All the light blue lines in the chart are times when I worry about worrying. I wonder if I will always be anxious, if I will always ruminate on the negative, and if I would ever change. On day 15, I ponder why I am the way I am. I get frustrated that I can’t change how I react to situations and am at the mercy of my emotions. It leads to a downward spiral of thoughts that just seem hopeless. I am reminded of how I despise this feeling and how I really want to change. This motivates me to do something, to change my circumstances. It’s not easy to take action, until it becomes really threatening. I have been to a place where I don’t see life as interesting or meaningful, and that terrifies me. It is like taking colour away from me, life loses so much meaning. I am working hard to become well. I am learning that the path to wellness is a path that does not remove anxiety, but allows me to live with it. This is extremely hard to accomplish. It means I will have to be able to live with contradiction. I will have to be able to process thoughts of worry and calm at the same time. It might take years or decades to accomplish this. I have to learn to be aware of each thought that I have and alter it to be more in line with reality. Will things get better? Only time will tell. Did you notice what just happened there? I didn’t jump to conclusions. I have no evidence it will get better, but I also don’t have any evidence it will get worse. And this is the first step to wellness.
Unidentified. A finding that surprised me with the exercise of logging anxiety was that I found incidents where I could not identify the source of anxiety. When you take the same route to work or school everyday, things become autopilot. Anxiety is very similar in how it becomes automatic through habit. With enough repetition, it just happens. All the green lines show times when I was anxious but did not know why. I developed a physical reaction to anxiety that started years ago and still persists today: clenching my jaw when I am awake. Most of the time, I am not aware of my jaw clenching until it becomes sore. The data shows that I generally have unidentified anxiety in the morning, perhaps I am expecting something bad to happen in the day. There was one incident where I woke up around 3 AM feeling worried on day 16. I could not identify the source, but that is okay. It is enough that I developed awareness of my feelings, and this is where data visualization became insightful, it helped me see something I could not see before. Data visualization makes the intangible tangible, it provides shape to information. By profession and practice, I believe data visualization could change how people perceive, and ultimately, change how they live.