Leslie was having one of those days when nothing goes right. The kids she worked with as a speech therapist were unfocused and angry, their parents were even worse, and she was fighting with her boyfriend. She was also feeling flabby and worrying about her finances. In short, it was a typical Monday in modern America. What wasn’t typical was that Leslie was calming herself with thoughts of blue and green sea horses and sharp colored pencils.
Leslie is one of 40 million American adults who suffer from anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health nearly 20% of America suffers from some form of this condition, making it the most common mental illness. Unfortunately, like most mental conditions anxiety is extremely under-treated and only about only about one third of those suffering seek help.
Even as a kid, Leslie recalls being anxious and worrying about everything. Her stress caused her to have back pain, severe neck tension, and to become extremely irritable. As an adult she tried several remedies including meditation, exercise, talk therapy, acupuncture, and stretching. Still, she suffered on a daily basis until she discovered the coloring cure.
Coloring, like other forms of expressive therapies, can help people tap into parts of themselves that are not easily expressed through words. This is especially true for people suffering from social anxiety who may find that traditional talk therapies exacerbate their self-consciousness. This was true for Debra, who has struggled with anxiety her entire life and has tried just about everything to find relief. She noticed that the process of coloring – choosing the colors and their placement, staying in the lines – helped her feel a sense of calm. “Colors are pretty, unless they’re not coordinating. So for me, matching colors is soothing and pleasing to the eye. When I am coloring, I feel in control, like I can make everything pretty, unlike in life,” she says.
And coloring therapy can work for people suffering from different kinds of stress. Franchesca, who lost her son in a tragic accident, finds that a coloring project can grant her temporary respite from her grief. “When I color, I am able to focus only on the project at hand and I don’t obsess about my loss,” she says. Franchesca has been coloring for 40 years, but since her son died it has taken on a therapeutic role. When her kids were young, she used it as a way to relax with them, each of them working on their own project. “It brought a quiet time into the hectic life of a single mom,” she recalls. As someone who thrives on always being busy, Franchesca recognized that coloring brought much-needed calm into her life. And, since the loss of her son, it has helped in a more profound way. “Coloring is helping me learn that in the end everything will turn out OK.”
How does coloring therapy work?
Coloring therapy combines the focus and repetition of meditation with the self-expression of art therapy and throws in a dash of nostalgia for good measure. It’s something that can bring instant relief to a frazzled brain, is very inexpensive, and can be done almost anywhere. Another bonus is that unlike meditation and other therapies, coloring is something most of us already know how to do.
Therapeutic coloring has not been researched extensively, though one study did find that certain types of coloring could significantly reduce anxiety. To test the Zen powers of the crayon, anxiety was induced in a group of participants by asking them to write about a scary experience they had endured. After this anxiety producing exercise they were split into three groups and asked to color for 20 minutes. The group that colored visually pleasing mandalas got the most stress relief and many were less anxious than when they had entered the lab. Coloring a plaid pattern provided a similar, if slightly less potent benefit. The group that colored blank pages experienced no reduction in anxiety.
The researchers speculated that the unlimited options of the blank page could have induced anxious feelings about the subject and the quality of the drawing. They reported that the blank-page participants wanted more instructions and took breaks from their coloring to tap their pencils and try to figure out what to do next. This performance anxiety could be especially difficult for people who consider themselves artistically challenged. Leslie counts herself as one of those. “I can’t even draw a stick figure. It’s that bad,” she says. “Coloring therapy gives me a way I can do art and I don’t have to feel bad about not being able to draw the figures I want to color.”
Adult coloring book mania
Though adult coloring books have been around for a few years they have recently exploded in popularity and availability. Often credited with sparking the adult coloring trend, Secret Garden continues to top book sales and has sold over 1.4 million copies. It features intricate floral designs and a Where’s Waldo-style twist with hidden creatures to find. Adult coloring books have consistently been on the Top 10 Best Seller List on Amazon and booksellers report them selling like hotcakes.
Adult coloring books come with a wide variety of subject matter, styles and intricacy, though one thing they have is common is having more sophisticated, intricate designs than coloring books for kids. Finding the right level of challenge is very important for a relaxing coloring experience. Designs that are too complicated or intricate can be overwhelming, and drawings that are not interesting or visually appealing might lead to boredom and disengagement. A design that is aesthetically pleasing and complex enough to be engaging without being overwhelming is the coloring therapy sweet spot. Johanna Bashford’s best-selling Secret Garden is a good example of beauty, complexity, and do-ability.
There are scores of adult coloring books flooding the market, so there is something for every taste, from cats and butterflies to ancient Mexican designs. Those who prefer architectural designs might try Splendid Cities by Rosie Goodwin and Alice Chadwick, and Fantastic Cities by Steve McDonald, which features “immersive aerial views of real cities from around the world alongside gorgeously illustrated, Inception-like architectural mandalas,” according to the Amazon description. Leslie says she chooses books depicting subjects she enjoys such as Dia de Los Muertos or marine animals.
The dark side of coloring
Leslie was coloring three to four hours a day. Her marathon coloring sessions were causing arm pain and she hadn’t spoken to her boyfriend in a week. Like any coping skill, coloring therapy can be abused and Leslie realized that she was using the activity as an escape. “With any stress reliever I think if you do it too much it can become an avoidance pattern.” She also noticed that there could be stress in the actual process, “There is also a bit of stress in picking the colors. I’m not good at putting colors together. With my perfectionist nature that can be stressful in itself.”
Leslie is doing her best to let go of the quality of the final product and focus on enjoying the process of getting there. And, while Leslie often finds herself focused on finishing a coloring project, Debra gets stressed before she even starts. “I don’t want to mess up the picture and I’m afraid I’ll choose the wrong colors,” Debra says. Like any form of stress relief, coloring can be overused, especially if it becomes an obsession or long-term escape from other responsibilities.
The color of happiness
With the right design, sharp pencils and some time, magic is possible. “I feel like I’ve accomplished something when I’m finished with a coloring project. It's very satisfying and tangible. Plus, it’s something I can get done in a few hours,” says Leslie. Helping clients in her day job is a gradual and arduous process, and the results of her efforts may not be apparent for years to come. She feels like she has more patience and is less irritable, which is very important for someone who works with kids all day. “I’ve been coloring for the past three weeks and my mood has improved. I’m not as quick to snap and I’m not triggered as quickly by hurtful or irritating things.”
Anxiety is often described as inner chaos. While coloring is not a cure for anxiety it can be another tool that can be used to effectively manage the condition. The coloring process can encourage mindfulness, appreciation of beauty and self-reliance. The practice can also bring about a sense of control, joy and old fashioned fun. One coloring mom said it best, “Personally, I think that one of the perks of being a mom is that I get to color on a regular basis. And I don't have to be embarrassed about reading Harry Potter a second time either.”
Stay tuned for next week's post with tips onhow to best use coloring therapy to reduce your stress and anxiety. Sharpen those pencils and get ready to relax!