Untying the knot

At The Big Anxiety Project, art, science and creativity intertwined to calm even the most anxious of hearts.

Illustration by  Emily Chandler

Illustration by Emily Chandler


Field Studies is a monthly column by Clare Watson, who travels around Australia and the world exploring science by participating in studies, visiting research institutes, going on trips with scientists, and a lot more.

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

I’m trapped in a tumble dryer — that is my favourite description of what anxiety feels like. Bumped around, pushed and pulled, like a ragdoll. Your stomach in knots, you can’t stand up straight. Might last a minute, or haunt you all day. Or maybe to you it doesn’t feel like that at all. Instead spikes may radiate from your head, like acupuncture needles, pinning you in place, or you notice tension concentrating in your fists and knees. 

Anxiety is a universal experience but deeply personal — to each their own. Under the weight of anxious thoughts or when probed with questions, it can be difficult to find the words to explain what exactly is going on in your mind. You know it’s irrational, you’re told it’s illogical. Regardless, it’s overwhelming, and for some, debilitating. 

The Big Anxiety Project, part of Sydney’s Vivid Ideas Festival this year, showcased a wealth of researchers taking creative approaches to understand anxiety. It was also a citizen science venture, collecting data from the audience (and projecting it live). Citizen science projects are emerging everywhere and openly invite people to participate in current research studies or collaborate with scientists by sourcing or analysing data or specimens. It’s a powerful strategy to connect a diverse and eager public audience with great scientific minds because it can expand the scope of research far beyond traditional means.

Creative methods in health research, like body mapping or found poetry (a literary equivalent of a collage created by taking words or phrases from other sources and reframing them), can also distil powerful messages. Such methods — when shared with a popular audience, at art exhibitions for example — also celebrate participants’ unique experiences. As Katherine Boydell, Professor of Mental Health at the Black Dog Institute and co-founder of The Big Anxiety Project, champions: “There’s great potential for creative and evocative forms of art to illuminate the worlds we wish to understand better”.

Surveyed on arrival — but leave your words at the door — we were asked to first draw our experience of anxiety on a lone human figure (this is called body mapping). We also indicated on a sliding scale between a smooth orb and an electrocuted echidna how we were feeling. Given that most people, myself included, had trundled into the Museum of Contemporary Art hair wet and umbrellas bent, a sense of relief was apparent. There was also a comfort to the room: not only was it a refuge from the wild storm outside but there was a gentle reassurance of shared experience between strangers.

The idea of space — how your surroundings can agitate or soothe you — was a recurrent theme on the day. To borrow the poetic words of Rebecca Giggs, there are places to stand in this country where the sky comes down to your ankles, but there are also places where your ankles feel tied together, where you feel cornered or trapped. 

The neurotypical ‘norm’ of how we experience our world is very slim and some people are more sensitive to their surroundings than others. Dawn-joy Leong is an artist who creates installations to replicate the hyper-sensory realm of autism; she appeared at The Big Anxiety Project accompanied by her service dog, Lucy. Dawn-joy and Lucy, a black greyhound, pair each other well: both slender and alert.

Despite the rainbow-striped walls and fluorescent lighting, and with Lucy at her side, Dawn-joy spoke emphatically about sensory anxiety in autism, which stems from an intense response to visual and olfactory stimuli. Her work ‘Little Sweets小甜心 – a sensory odyssey’ is a metaphor for the barriers built by anxiety that can obstruct you from reaching something more attractive.

Anxiety’s greatest manifestation is avoidance. Do you notice yourself avoiding the source of your anxieties? For me, avoidance means indecision: my anxieties commonly revolve around missing an opportunity that I had the chance to seize but chose otherwise. 

Coincidentally, just days before the event I had a spike of anxiety whilst on a train. The sun had set. The glass was cold. There was no difference between the sky and the dark tunnel from which we had just emerged. Midway between stations, not able to tune into a podcast because my phone was out of battery, I couldn’t shake the anxious thoughts on repeat. Some days I’m quite resilient but on that day I couldn’t find clarity amongst the white noise until fresh air hit my lungs and I walked briskly home.

Relaxation techniques, like deep breathing exercises, can reset your frame of mind by focusing your attention on a core sensation in your body. Neuroscientists believe that rhythm has a calming effect: our brains lock on to rhythms in the external environment, in music perhaps, and our neurons begin to fire in synchrony with that pulse. Governed by the autonomic nervous system, our heart and lungs largely work unconsciously, a constant hum in the background, unnoticed — but we can tap into the rhythm of our heartbeat and breathing to calm the mind. This is the essence of many meditation and yogic practices. 

Exhibited at The Big Anxiety Project, George Khut’s ‘biofeedback’ artworks are designed to train users to do just that — observe and control their heartbeat. Like a bird’s eye view of Saturn, a white core with rings throbs according to your heart rate. Seeing the sensations in your body visualised in front of you, the experience can serve as an external validation of your intent to relax.

I fumbled trying to strap the heart rate monitor on my wrist. Similar to when you prepare to get a needle or your blood pressure tested, I was told to relax but with the hyper-attention on my heart, it was racing. I faced the screen, which was placed like a full-length mirror, except it reflected my physiological state instead of my body image. The orb was burning red. I thought of tai chi, of pulling good energy inwards and releasing tension outward. Blue rings gathered and the beat slowed.



Check out some of the data collected at The Big Anxiety Project, as well as works by the artists and researchers featured at the event, on Instagram: @thebiganxietyproject

If you are suffering from anxiety, Beyond Blue recommends several relaxation exercises. You can also contact Lifeline on 13 14 11 and Headspace, which both offer telephone and online support services for young people.

Edited by Jack Scanlan