Want to overcome anxiety? Lou Hamilton knows exactly what it feels like to live with it. She turned to creativity and has now launched Brave New Girl: How to be Fearless, a new book of illustrations to help overcome it
Lou Hamilton had always been a shy and fearful girl. Silly things like going down slides would scare her as a toddler and as she grew older, even answering the phone would fill her with worry. But it was in the year of 1988, when the Pan Am Flight 103 was brought down by bombs in Lockerbie, Scotland, that her anxiety took a turn for the worse.
‘I was living right outside the village at the time where I had bought a church for a sculpture studio. It was night time, just after seven o’clock, on the 21st of December, so it was dark outside,’ Lou, 51 from West London explains. ‘I heard this rumble of what I thought was thunder and then a few minutes later I heard a huge boom and looked out and the sky had gone orange.’
I just heard this rumble of what I thought was thunder and then a few minutes later I heard a huge boom and looked out and the sky had gone orange
It was only ten minutes later that Lou discovered that the Pan Am Flight 103 jumbo jet had been bombed so, like the rest of the world, she spent the night watching television in order to understand the devastation that had rained down on her village.
‘It was horrific,’ said Lou, ‘you know that you worry about things and you get scared of things but you don’t expect something so massive to happen to you and when it did, I think my fears started to get worse.’
It was those moments that sparked over a decade of anxiety and fear for Lou, which led her on a long search for meaning, from Buddhism, to self-help books to many anxiety filled questions. Eventually, she found that creativity was her solution.
Now, in her new book, Brave New Girl: How to be Fearless, Hamilton uses illustrations and her creative powers to transport us in to a world of our own possibilities.
In England, women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem and are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorder, according to Mental Health Foundation.
In the last 25 years, anxiety has risen by 70% in under-30’s with one in six people suffering some level of symptoms.
After the Lockerbie disaster, Lou started to experience anxiety.
‘I often felt ‘jittery,’ like after you’ve had too much coffee or otherwise a ‘heart in the mouth’ sense of foreboding,’ she says.
However, it took Lou over ten years to make the connection between her anxiety and Lockerbie.
‘If you’re not physically hurt or you haven’t lost somebody you don’t feel like you have the right to grieve over what’s happened,’ she explains.
‘It was a lot more insidious, so the fears came much later but I didn’t make the connection for a very long time. It was years later that I realised why my fears were taking over.’
Knowing that she needed to take back control, she decided to turn to self-help books.
‘Books are my thing so I started to read. The first book that I read was Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers and that was the turning point I think for me.’
The first book that I read was Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers and that was the turning point I think for me
Lou explains that worrying about things doesn’t stop them from happening and instead, ruins the time that you should be enjoying.
So, ten years after Lockerbie, Lou who had turned her head to documentary making, was asked to be one of the directors for Death, a Channel 4 series that followed the lives of people with terminal illnesses.
‘What was meant to be 18 months of filming turned in to three years, but what really hit home was the people who were dying, once they got to a point of acceptance, they stopped being afraid and started really living life,’ she explains.
‘I just remember thinking, I don’t want to wait until I’m about to die to start living life, I want to live now, and that was another kick up the backside, it made me realise I need to get on top of this.’
I don’t want to wait until I’m about to die to start living life, I want to live now
While working on the film, Lou wanted to learn how to be empathetic towards people’s fears and vulnerabilities, so took it upon herself to train as a life coach.
‘I started to learn all the tools to helping others get over their fears and of course I had to practice what I was preaching so I took those on board too, and I was able to start turning things around, and through that I started to re-find my own creativity.’
While making documentaries was creative on one level, Lou says she found it would take too much time to produce. Having originally trained in art, painting and sculpture, she began to take up photography again, creating motivational images with captions.
Then, when the frustration of film became too much and she knew that her children were soon going to be flying the nest, she applied her creativity and life coaching skills and began drawing to help ease her anxiety and help others.
‘I bought some pens and pencils and got started and that was it, I couldn’t stop.’
‘I bought some pens and pencils and got started and that was it, I couldn’t stop.
And with that, she created a character who was everything she wanted for herself, her daughter, and for all women, young and old, who were suffering with the same anxiety that she had for years – a fearless ‘Brave New Girl’.
‘I thought I could collect my drawings together and give them to my daughter for when she goes out in to the real world and I was finding it was helping me with my fears, it was transforming them by laughing at them and making a joke out of them.
She first uploaded her drawings online and received an astounding response from friends of all ages her refreshing and humorous antidote to the stress of modern life.
‘It was their amazingly positive and encouraging feedback that I knew that I’d hit on something.
‘Then, I ended up with a few hundred drawings, found an agent and had them published and that’s how Brave New Girl: how to be fearless, came about.’
So how does being creative calm anxiety, exactly?
‘You can use your creativity to be less fearful,’ says Lou.
Our fears are often disguised, so by being creative we tap in to the subconscious, drill down and uncover our deep-seated fears, forcing us to face them, explains Lou.
‘It’s a way of harnessing your fears so that they don’t run riot and so they don’t ruin your life.
‘Anything that uses your imagination is engaging your creativity – we all have that, it’s not just artistic people. Everybody has the gift of creativity, most of which has been forgotten after childhood, but we use it without realising.’
It’s a way of harnessing your fears so that they don’t run riot and so they don’t ruin your life
And she explains that creativity doesn’t lie with your bog-standard painting and drawing, it can come in all forms – from flower arranging, gardening and baking to decorating the interior of your flat.
‘Being fearless is an ongoing challenge,’ she says, ‘life throws things at you all the time, but now I have my tool kit, so I know what I need to do when something comes up and I also practice daily healthy habits.’
To distract herself from anxiety, Lou often chooses a colour for the day and looks out for it wherever she goes, whether it’s walking to the shop or on a 20 minute cycle ride. Doing this allows you to enjoy your surroundings and capture your imagination, turning your focus away from your anxieties.
6 ways you can use creativity to beat anxiety
First of all – get creative
It can be anything: doodling, gardening, baking, flower arranging, pottery, poetry, model-making, anything that stimulates your imagination which will otherwise be hijacked by your fears.
Creativity pushes back your fears and lowers your anxiety levels and makes you feel calmer.
2. Do a daily brain dump
Write down on a piece of paper everything that worries you or makes you feel angry. Write without stopping and without judgment and keep going for ten minutes.
Make sure you get everything that is bothering you out and do not re-read. Once you are done, tear up the piece of paper and throw it away.
This technique is normally used for chronic pain but it is also excellent for anxiety as it acknowledges your stress but at the same time releases you from it.
2. Watercolour strokes
Get a cheap box of watercolours, plain paper and a wide soft brush. Paint big random strokes in any colour- try not to use more than three or four colours on your sheet. When its dry, get a thin black pen and let it draw around the page. Don’t take the nib off the paper, just let it do its thing. Breathe slowly and enjoy the ride.
3. A colour a day
Choose a colour for a day, say its yellow, and then look for it wherever you go. Whether you’re cycling along or walking, just mentally make note of everything you see that’s yellow. This captures your imagination and distracts your mind from your concerns as it focuses you on the present moment, allowing you to enjoy your surroundings.
4. Cognitive scramble
Pick a word, for example: FEAR.
Write down or think of, all the words you can think of beginning with F. When you run out of ideas move onto E. Then A and finally R.
This is a great creative exercise for when you can’t sleep but also if you are worrying as it distracts you from your anxious thoughts and gets your creative muscle working instead.
5. Build an alphabet of patterns
It can be circles, triangles, rectangles, dots, stripes, arches, wiggles, squiggles or zig-zags. In a small sketch pad draw a wonky square and fill it with some of your ‘alphabet’.
Doodling is a relaxing way to distract your imagination away from worries. When you have filled your square, take some coloured felt pens and fill them in.
Lou Hamilton, Brave New Girl: How to be fearless (Orion Publishing, £12.99) will be available to purchase in September