Fearne Cotton On Drawing And Painting To Quieten 'The White Noise Of Life'

What Works For Me: The author and presenter chats mental health and finding balance as a working mum.

Fearne Cotton is engaged in a ferocious debate with her six-year-old son Rex over a chocolate egg that he is determined to eat before lunch. But the author and TV presenter is adamant he has to wait.

The scene unfolding at the other end of the phone has played out in countless households and, like many working mums, Cotton feels the need for some restorative “me-time” to keep her mental health in check.

For some, that would be a glass of wine in front of the telly. But for the 37-year-old, it’s painting portraits or sketching in biro during snatched free moments that help her rediscover inner calm.

“It’s something that is relaxing but still has an outcome,” says Cotton, who admits she has trouble relaxing without a tangible purpose. “I’m not distracted when I’m drawing, but I am in a sort of more meditative state where the white noise of life definitely fades into the background. I just feel really at peace.”

Having experienced depression, anxiety and panic attacks in the past, Cotton says her mental health is now in a better place. She uses art to de-stress, but feels lucky her problems are “nothing major” at the moment.

“It’s all the things that every other person is going through out there: juggling work and life and tiredness and lack of sleep,” she says.

She experiences anxiety less frequently now, but it can still rear its unhelpful head when she’s got a new work project coming up. “If it’s a big job where it feels like I’m going to be judged or there’s going to be mass opinion, then anxiety is the one that creeps out more than the others,” she says.

Cotton’s artwork ranges from detailed oil paintings of famous faces – her favourite is a portrait of Vivienne Westwood, which hangs in her downstairs bathroom – to quick sketches in biro, many of which pepper her three books, Happy, Calm and Quiet.

The sketches are often a reflection of how she’s feeling that day and Cotton says illustrating emotions can sometimes help her understand them better.

Art has always been part of the Cotton household; the presenter’s father, Mick Cotton, is a sign-writer by trade and her childhood home was always filled with his paints and pencils.

“We had this big dining room table that I would sit at and scrawl away for hours. It was my absolute joy,” she says.

Realising art was a form of self-care for her happened entirely by accident, as did becoming a mental health advocate.

Cotton remembers being “terrified” about the response her book Happy would receive, as it was the first time she had disclosed full details of her depression. But the response was so positive, she was galvanised to do more.

She realised: “There are so many people in this country that aren’t feeling great and feel like they are alienated and the more we keep talking and the more we keep this conversation alive, the more people will feel connected and less alone and hopefully that will lead to them getting help.”

Two more books and the Happy Place podcast followed and now, Cotton is hoping to bring their core messages to life with the Happy Place Festival.

The event, taking part in London’s Chiswick House and Cheshire’s Tatton Park this summer, will feature talks and workshops designed to help visitors “unlock inner happiness”. Crucially, she wants the festival to have a long term effect.

“I don’t just want it to just be a festival where people walk in and come out with a nice pair of yoga leggings,” she says.

The concept is a far cry from the raucous musical festivals Cotton enjoyed in her early career, where she jokes “the party never ended” and stumbling back to the BBC trailer at 7am was the norm. But, she says, there’s room in life for both.

“I’ll still go to Glastonbury this year and I can’t wait for that, but I definitely do Glastonbury differently to how I used to,” she says, adding that she now only has around “two drinks a year at a wedding or a special occasion”.

“As well as having a great time like that and being a bit raucous, I think people really do want to find balance in their lives and I think more and more people are on a quest to find out how they can keep feeling good,” she says.

She’s keen to point out that art, alongside her other hobbies of yoga and running, can not cure depression, but combine as part of a self-care strategy that makes triggers less frequent and episodes less pronounced.

“There’s no cure. There’s no ‘do this once and you’ll feel amazing’,” she says.

“But they’re all small things that I have in my back pocket now that I know are going to help me get back eventually to feeling good – and that might be in an hour, a day, a week or in a year. But I think as long as I always keep those things up regularly, it will help.”

In ‘What Works For Me’ – a series of articles considering how we can find balance in our lives – we talk to people about their self-care strategies.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.