Reflecting Upon the Phenomenon of Adult Colouring
The phenomenon of adult colouring for stress relief and enjoyment has proliferated over the past year, with colouring becoming a popular past-time for many adults in different countries around the world. I have spent time researching and considering this internal trend, reading numerous articles on the internet, in order to understand the various perspectives on adult colouring and why it has become so popular. Here is a summary of what I have found so far, along with my perspective as a psychologist on the subject:
Like other hobbies that people do for their personal well-being (e.g., gardening, reading and so forth), adult colouring is enjoyed and appears to have psychological benefits. Counselor, Dr Nikki Martinez wrote a very informative piece called: 7 Reasons Adult Colouring Books are Great for your Mental, Emotional and Intellectual Health. In it, she explains how adult colouring can help to: re-focus attention away from distressing thoughts, provide positive distraction from negative habits, enable mindful contact with the present moment, and give the brain some much needed time for rest and relaxation. She suggests that coloring transports us back to simpler times, times of childhood joy, with less stress, pressure and responsibility, and that colouring can enable us to reconnect with this part of ourselves and give us a temporary 'time-out' from the stressors associated with adult life. Dr Martinez also makes reference to the neurological and psycho-biological benefits of colouring. E.g., it can calm the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with stress reactions and anxiety, and it can enhance our focus and concentration skills.
Dr Stan Rodski, a cognitive neuroscientist, adds to this picture by suggesting that adult colouring can also be helpful because the act of focusing while colouring can relax the mind and shift our brainwaves from beta-waves (associated with pressure and stress) to alpha-waves (associated with relaxation). Dr Rodski conducted recent research about the act of colouring, and found its ability to create a calming or meditative state and reduce stress. Sleep expert, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan advocates the use of adult colouring books before bed for the same reason: 'Try colouring in before you go to bed, it slows the mind down taking the brain from beta mode (highly stimulated) into the alpha-theta states which are almost meditative, this enables and calms the nervous system preparing the mind/body for deep restorative sleep'.
In an article for TED.com, journalist Tom Roston discusses 'Why Adults Love Colouring Books Too', and highlights the self-care aspect of adult colouring. Roston explains that 'Engaging in self-care is important for everyone, whether it’s jogging or the self-soothing ritual of art-making... We need to find things that are restorative.' Roston states that colouring should not be viewed as art therapy per se, but that it can be therapeutic and it can help adults to connect with a more creative part of themselves. Colouring - feeling a sense of 'flow', timelessness, and being wholly present in the moment - can be incredibly restorative for some people. An article by Dana Dovey in Medical Daily: 'The Therapeutic Science of Adult Colouring Books: How This Childhood Pasttime Helps Adults Relieve Stress' speaks similarly about the trend: I.e., It should not be compared to art therapy with a qualified professional, but it can help to relax the mind, positively alter our brainwaves, and help us cope more effectively with negative thoughts.
Naturally, not everyone regards adult colouring positively. For example, art therapist and psychotherapist Cathy Malchiodi contends that 'Colouring is not mindfulness... Colouring is not creative art expression...' and 'Colouring is not art therapy'. Comedian and social activist Russel Brand mocks the act of adults colouring, perceiving it as an avoidant, passive activity done by those who are traumatized by the state of our social climate. I would like to offer my perspective in response to these positions, for a balanced view of the phenomenon - and to clarify some misunderstandings.
First, the behavioural act of colouring - in and of itself - is not mindfulness. However, colouring can be practiced as a form of informal mindfulness, if the individual is being mindful while they are colouring. Mindfulness can be practiced formally (during meditation), or informally (by bringing a mindful mindset to daily activities like walking, colouring, or taking a shower). Mindfulness is a way of being, an attitude and a process, which I write about and demonstrate in The Mindfulness Companion. It requires practice and asks that we bring a particular mindset (of loving-kindness, compassion, non-reactivity. non-judgement, curiosity, openness and acceptance) to our way of being and to whatever we are doing in the present moment.When colouring is done in this way, it is mindfulness - and it is a great way of incorporating informal mindfulness into daily life.
Second, colouring is different to the creation of original art. Nevertheless, it can be viewed as a form of creative, artistic expression. The individual who colours can express their personality and feelings in colour, and connect with a creative part of themselves as they decide which colour to add where. The images coloured can be framed for enjoyment or shared on social media, as one could do with original art. Adult colouring books offer easy access to the joy and relaxation that creativity can bring, without needing to be an artist or possess particular skill. Neuroscience PhD student, Jordan Gaines discusses the issue of creative expression and adult colouring in a short article, A Neuroscientist Patiently Explains the Allure of the Adult Coloring Book, supporting this position.
Third, as mentioned above, adult colouring is not a substitute for art therapy or psychotherapy with a trained professional. However, individual experience and general consensus points to the fact that colouring can feel therapeutic, relaxing and positive for many adults.
It is possible that the popularity of 'anti-stress' adult colouring books may be, in part, linked to our current social climate. It may indeed reflect a reality that many people feel stressed, burnt-out, depressed and anxious by the demands of modern life, advertising and propaganda in the mass media. If an individual unconsciously retreats into colouring whenever they feel emotionally challenged, then the hobby could be viewed as an unhelpful, detrimental form of avoidance. I contend that colouring is most likely to be helpful and positive when individuals engage with the activity in an intentional, self-aware way. Colouring can exist as a healthy, positive pastime, along-side more active means of addressing psychological discomfort, like designated 'me time', therapy, and social activism.
To conclude, the information that I have reviewed so far about the phenomenon of adult colouring suggests that it can feel therapeutic for many people - but that its utility depends upon how and why people colour. Colouring is a relatively non-demanding task that paradoxically offers a sense of achievement. It can enable creative expression, help to relax the mind, prepare us for good quality sleep, support diffusion from difficult thoughts and encourage tolerance of challenging emotions. When adult colouring is done mindfully, for self-care, self-soothing and considered creative escapism, I believe that it can be a positive hobby for enhancing mental health and well-being. However, it is important to be reflective and to engage in the activity consciously; I.e., notice and seek to understand your desire to colour now. From this platform of self-awareness you can address any issues that may be affecting your mental health and well-being, and welcome colouring into your life as an enjoyable pastime.
Be intentional; colour mindfully ⚓
With warm wishes,
Dr. Sarah Jane Arnold.