Gabe Coeli of Portland, Ore., is devotee of zen meditation. But in the middle of a busy work day, he often takes a shortcut to mindfulness and stress relief by doing a little coloring. His assistant and many of his co-workers have picked up the same habit, he says.
So have a lot of people. Coloring books for adults have exploded in popularity this year in the USA after first catching on in Europe. The books, often featuring complex floral or geometric designs, consistently occupy multiple spots on Amazon’s top-20 books list. They have their own prominent display cases in many bookstores.
Which, ironically enough, is why Coeli and his co-workers are so busy and under so much stress this holiday season: Coeli is creative director of Blue Star Coloring, publisher of an especially popular line of coloring books, with titles such as Stress Relieving Patterns, Stress Relieving Animal Designs and Stress Relieving Paisley Patterns.
“I am proud to say that we were the first coloring book outfit to tout the benefit of stress relief,” Coeli says. He and his partners in PCG Publishing Group went into the coloring book business after one partner’s wife, a doctor, reported that she and her hospital colleagues were relaxing by coloring on their breaks, he says.
Once they all tried it, he says, they understood: “It was the rhythmic repetition of coloring that provided the stress relief.”
Just a handful of small studies have looked at the psychological effects of coloring. In one, published a decade ago, 84 college students took a test to measure baseline anxiety levels and then boosted those levels by writing about scary experiences. Right after that, they were randomly assigned to color a blank page, a plaid design or a mandala — an intricate circular pattern that, in Buddhist and Hindu traditions, represents the universe. Coloring the plaid or mandala patterns reduced their anxiety, while coloring a blank page did not. A follow-up study by other researchers found the same effect for mandalas but not for plaid patterns.
“There is something about the mandala that is particularly soothing for people,” says Lacy Mucklow, an art therapist in Washington, D.C., and author of Color Me Calm, Color Me Happy, and Color Me Stress Free, “guided coloring books” illustrated by artist Angela Porter and published by Race Point Publishing. The books contain mandalas and other geometric patterns but also nature scenes, babies and cute animals.
Mucklow says she sees the coloring craze as a healthy way for stressed-out multitaskers to tune out the larger world.
“It’s good for us to be quiet and still and focused on just one thing for once,” she says.
But Mucklow is quick to say that getting a moment of zen from a coloring book is not the same as art therapy — which, for starters, involves a relationship with a therapist. Art therapists, trained in both art and psychology, treat patients with conditions ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to Alzheimer’s disease, and they use all kinds of art in their practices.
“Coloring is not going to help somebody that has been traumatized,” Mucklow says. “But it’s a great for people who want to come home from a stressful day at work and unwind.”
The American Art Therapy Association has put out an official statement saying it supports the use of coloring books for “pleasure and self care” but hopes coloring won’t take the place of therapy for those who could benefit.
If the trend reminds some people that they enjoy art, that’s a good thing, says association president Donna Betts, an art therapist in Washington, D.C.
“Maybe this is a reaction to people having too many screens in their lives,” she says. “I don’t know if I would go so far as to say it’s meditative. But it’s a fun and easy thing to do and it’s tactile.”
One adult coloring magazine even goes by the name Art Therapy, but Tom Bath, marketing director for the weekly magazine’s publisher, Hachette Partworks, concedes that “coloring is not clinically proven to relieve stress.” Mostly, he says, it’s just low-key fun — and a whole lot easier than knitting, quilting or other “crafty” pastimes enjoying new popularity.
Not all adult coloring enthusiasts are in it for stress relief. Jenny Fenlason, a home-schooling mother of four in Minneapolis, says she sees it primarily as a social activity. She is the founder of a coloring club that attracts an average of 20 people each month. Other clubs around the country have had similar success, she says.
“I really view it as a way to facilitate conversation and connection,” she says. The meetings are bring-your-own book affairs, and Fenlason says one person’s relaxing mandala is another person’s headache. Many prefer to color teacups or movie characters, she says.
Her own recent favorite: a book called Unicorns are Jerks. “I kind of think those really complex books are anything but relaxing”
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