Do Coloring Books Benefit Mental Health?

One of the first things we are taught to do is color in black and white line drawings. We’re handed pictures of zoo animals and princesses and simple houses and shapes in the form of coloring books. We learn to color often before we learn to read, or eat with utensils without making a mess, or drink out of a cup without a lid. So why now are so many adults gravitating toward this childhood hobby?

So-called “adult coloring books” have become massively trendy, competing with more “traditional” books on Amazon’s for best-seller list since 2014. Now it seems a new coloring book comes out every day, and the more esoteric or complex, the better. Crayola has even launched their own line of adult coloring “kits”, appropriately titled “color escapes.” So the idea is clearly marketable, with many of us are spending our evenings returning to our spaghetti-sauce-smeared glory days. But why are we doing this?

More and more, coloring books geared toward adults promise stress-relief or meditative mandalas, and the effectiveness of these has been hotly debated in scientific circles. A parallel is frequently drawn between “coloring therapy” and Art Therapy, and while the former is new to the scene, the latter is hardly a new therapeutic science. Some art therapists dismiss coloring books as medically beneficial in any way, explaining that art therapy requires creating from scratch — and coloring in someone else’s work simply doesn’t qualify. Drena Fagen, an art therapist and adjunct instructor at New York University’s Steinhardt School, explains the difference between art therapy and coloring books “I don’t consider the coloring books as art therapy…I consider the coloring books therapeutic, which is not the same thing” (The Guardian).

Still others laud the new trend as an easy path to at-home therapy for a whole host of psychological, and sometimes even physical, problems. Some graduate professors are even encouraging in-class coloring to help students who struggle to focus. The idea is that if your hands are busy with something relatively mindless, your brain can focus more fully on the important information it needs to receive from the lecture. Knitting can often have the same effect (Medical Daily). Mindlessly coloring can also help us reconnect with our childhood, a time when we created or acted without judging ourselves. This can unlock our creative potential in other arenas we may not have considered before, and since creativity is heavily linked to happiness, this can help alleviate feelings of depression or anxiety (NY Daily News).

Scientific studies have been done on adults who color, and the results are indisputable. According to neuropsychologist Dr. Stan Rodski, “Like meditation, coloring allows us to switch off our brains and from other thoughts and focus on the moment.” Rodski was able to see the physical effects coloring had on our bodies by using advanced technology. “The most amazing things occurred — we started seeing changes in heart rate, changes in brainwaves,” he said of the study, adding that part of this neurological response in colorists comes from the repetition and attention to patterns and detail associated with coloring” (Medical Daily).

While coloring is a largely solo endeavor, some adults have decided to start coloring groups that meet regularly. Whether or not this would help boost the beneficial results of coloring relies entirely on the individual and what they hope to get out of their new hobby. For instance, if coloring is something that you’re hoping will boost your confidence, or encourage you to try other creative endeavors, groups with varying skill levels may do more harm than good. If coloring is a meditative practice, to help yourself look for quiet and calm in your day, then finding a group with the same goals would be very important.

To get the most out of your coloring experience, first determine what your goals are. Then decide what skill level you’re ready to commit to. Finally, get some supplies, and off you go!

Have you tried the new fad of coloring in your free time? How has it helped you? Let us know in the comments!

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