Color Me Healthy

Today’s coloring books allow adults to become absorbed in meditative activity.

by Claire Sykes

September 2016

This lotus mandala is from Color Yourself Calm: Relaxation by
Tiddy Rowan and Paul Heussenstamm (Barron’s, barronseduc.com).

Remember your crayons from childhood? You’d flip open the box to a chorus of colors and fill in thick-lined drawings of your favorite cartoon characters on the newsprint pages of your coloring books.

Welcome back, coloring books—this time for adults. Simple or complex, their illustrations of flowers, animals, geometric shapes and other designs spark the artist within and can challenge the sharpest of colored pencils and pens.

Since 2013, when illustrator Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden (Laurence King) ignited the trend, tens of millions of adult coloring books have been sold worldwide. And for good reason: More and more adults find coloring to be meditative, stress-relieving and just plain fun.

Focus as Fun

For starters, gazing at a line drawing of tropical fish while coloring them in sure beats staring at a computer screen. Coloring offers a tactile escape from the digital deluge, as you hold actual colored pencils and pens in your fingers and rub blues and greens onto real paper.

“Directing your attention toward a repetitive activity like coloring increases your focus and activates parts of your brain’s parietal lobe that are connected to your sense of self and spirituality. These areas of the brain are also engaged during meditation and prayer,” says Ben Michaelis, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City and author of Your Next Big Thing: Ten Small Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy (Wolf Street). “Coloring is absorbing, blocking out negative thoughts and switching off that circling anxiety, pulling you more into the present moment. When you’re focused on the here and now, there isn’t a lot of room for anxiety. Coloring, like meditation, trains the mind to keep you more in the present.”

Even the physical act of coloring benefits your health. Moving your hand back and forth in short, rapid strokes uses your fine motor skills, which helps minimize the effect of age-related loss in dexterity, says Michaelis. “The action also has a calming effect,” adds Allen J. Elkin, PhD, also a clinical psychologist and author of Stress Management for Dummies (Wiley).

“Your breathing can level off and become more regular.”

Better to be calm and coloring, especially if you stress out too easily. When you’re pressed to the max, the adrenal gland releases cortisone, a hormone that increases your blood pressure, preparing your body for that primal fight-or-flight reaction. Who needs that when a coloring book and some colored pencils can get your cortisone level to drop?

Freeing Your Inner Child

Jeff Binns took up coloring when he saw his mother-in-law doing it. “It’s a really nice way for me to relax,” says the 51-year-old pastor in Winterset, Iowa. He’s particularly drawn to Eastern Indian mandalas, geometric figures that represent the universe and a popular theme in the Color Yourself Calm books (Barrons). “They call up this eternal-life feeling, and looking at them for such a long time while I color is comforting. With the intricately illustrated ones, I have to be precise and that can be so intense, so it’s weird that, at the same time, coloring calms me and frees my mind from the world around me.”

Coloring also brings out the kid in Binns, something Michaelis attributes to using “play tools,” those from our early lives. “Most of our childhood memories reside in the senses,” Michaelis says. “Connecting with activities or events that tap into those can transport us to a simpler time, before the self-consciousness of adolescence and pressures of adulthood.”

If you feel less inhibited, it’s easier to be creative at coloring—from color choice and materials to technique, such as blending and shading colors. “I’m not a terribly artistic person, so it’s fun to have an illustration to go by and express myself with,” says Courtney Ponsford, 39, a nurse in Vancouver, Washington. “It doesn’t matter what colors you put on the page, and it’s satisfying to see the finished product.”

Researchers have found that having a hobby, like coloring, “can result in a sense of mastery and enhanced creativity, which can produce a more general sense of well-being in other areas of your life,” says Elkin.

Affordable and accessible to anyone, coloring can also be sociable. Lydia Hess, a Portland artist whose illustrations appear in the Coloring Books for the Soul series (HarperElixer), hosts community “color-ins” at independent bookstores and public libraries in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Many libraries around the country have their own coloring-book clubs. While coloring connects you with yourself, doing it with like-minded souls builds community.

Coloring inside such tiny spaces between thin lines may not be for everyone. But if you enjoy it, coloring just feels good. And when it comes to your health, coloring does good.

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