Adult Coloring. Does it Have Actual Health Benefits?
There is a big trend in the meditation and self-help communities of adult coloring for relaxation, stress and anxiety reduction. As an artist, I have always looked at my work as a way of helping me to focus and to escape from the stress of the daily grind, but could that same feeling be transferred to the non-artist? And why do so many people give up coloring as an adult but self-identified artists carry on? Is it just a rule society demands as we grow up? Is coloring just for kids? Why? So when this adult coloring trend started showing itself in my social media feeds and on the shelves at book stores, I got intrigued and I got very much inspired!
Of course the first thing I did was start drawing and making designs of my own that could be colored in.
The trend of adult coloring is an offshoot of the popularity of mindful meditation and often uses mandalas with their round radiating, meditative designs as the basis for relaxing meditative coloring. So I took that theme and gave it a bit of my own twist.
I drew designs based on science and nature, as I do, and then laid them out in radiating designs that are complex and somewhat circular- though different from mandalas.
I also have noted that most people are doing coloring books so I thought it would be fun to add the extra benefit to your relaxing coloring sessions, of actually having a piece of art that you can display after! So my designs are all on poster board that can be framed when you are finished coloring.
As of the writing of this post, I have completed five of these adult coloring posters but I have many more in the works and I hope to have them all done in time for the holidays. The next one I am working on is based on ammonites. The drawings really are enjoyable for me to create and I hope that feeling transfers to you as you color. It might and it might not– as we will learn in just a moment!
Ok enough about my art. What about the science behind coloring as therapy for anxiety and stress relief?
The next thing I did after creating these drawings was to reach out to an authority on the topic of mental health to find out if there is actually any real benefit to adult coloring. Is it all just hype?
Lucky for me, I know Dr Megan Press, a brilliant psychiatrist who was willing to help me dig through any existing research and find out the facts behind the hype of coloring for stress relief.
Megan Press is a psychiatrist with the Minneapolis VA medical center where she is the mental health medical director for both their community based outpatient clinics and the primary care – mental health integration team. She is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, teaching both medical students and residents. Her professional interests include psychosomatics, ADHD, PTSD, and integrating mental health care into general medical settings.
Here is what Dr Press has to say:
Adult coloring books currently occupy 4 of the top 20 slots on Amazon’s 2015 best-seller list. The gift shop down the street from my house has an entire display dedicated to adult coloring books and supplies. I think this is great, a way to encourage “time-outs” for grownups. Taking time out of a busy day to do something fun or relaxing can be difficult. For many of us, we feel pangs of guilt when we are not doing something productive. Setting aside work and responsibilities for a little enjoyment can be an important component in managing stress, and I like the idea that this concept could become trendy.
But many of these books aren’t marketing themselves as one of many different ways you can chill out and have a little down time. They are marketing themselves as a kind of therapy or as a treatment for medical conditions. Some claim that coloring induces mindfulness and has the same benefits as meditation. (For the record, mindfulness is a practice that is applied to an activity. It is not “induced” by the activity itself.) Others make no claims, but include testimonials from people who have colored their way to improved health. A quick internet search brings up page after page of articles claiming that coloring helps manage anxiety and improves mental focus. Quite a few of these pages include quotes from doctors which can create an illusion that these claims are backed by medical evidence.
There are very few studies examining the relationship between art and mental health. Even art therapy, a generally accepted practice, has very few randomized controlled trials assessing its benefit, and those are small studies with very few subjects. I was able to find only one study that specifically examined the potential benefits of coloring. There were 3 groups in the trial, and all of the participants were given 20 minutes to color after an “anxiety-inducing event.” One group was given a mandala to color; the second group was given a plaid design (of similar complexity to the mandala); and the third was instructed to color on a blank sheet. The first two groups experienced a drop in anxiety after the 20 minutes, but the free-from coloring group did not. Not a bad first study, but certainly not the final word in coloring for mental health. The authors readily admitted that the study had quite a few shortcomings. All of the participants were college students (roughly the same age and educational status), and the majority were Caucasian. Even a large study with this design would not necessarily apply to people with mental health diagnoses. What one person finds soothing could be overwhelming, overstimulating and anxiety-inducing to someone else.
But don’t let me rain on your coloring parade! Coloring doesn’t have to be a therapy to be worth your time. If you find coloring enjoyable or soothing, it could be a fun part of your overall self-care.
So there you have it! The science to prove benefit just isn’t there, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy yourself while coloring as you carve out a little bit of peaceful you-time in the chaos that is life. Coloring can be a potentially joyful, quiet-focus-time that many dedicated artists have enjoyed for years- or like many self-help trends it may not be what you needed after all!
Here is a link to the mandala coloring study referenced by Dr Press.
This project was originally posted on Patreon and my patrons got the drawings for free. If you like this project or any of the art I do, please support me by making a pledge. You can purchase the art as posters with free markers for coloring in my Etsy shop.
Here is a time lapse of me drawing an ammonite fossil for an upcoming poster. Relaxing? Maybe a bit hypnotic.
Extra special thanks to Dr Megan Press! There is no way I could have done this or understood all of the research without you. You rule!
*all art in this post by me!