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Adult Coloring Books: Childish or Beneficial?
Enthusiasts believe in coloring’s therapeutic potential, its ability to take the mind away from stressful thoughts while generating a relaxed state similar to meditation. Others believe coloring is merely a passing fad, is childish, or that it’s not a genuine creative endeavor.
No matter what others believe about the activity of coloring, this peaceful pastime is growing in popularity. Approximately 12 million adult coloring books were sold in the U.S. in 2015. This impressive trend has not shown any signs of slowing down.
What Do the Experts Say?
Brain scientist Dr. Joel Pearson believes that when one concentrates on the process of coloring, the activity helps facilitate the replacement of negative thoughts and images with pleasant ones.
Coloring for adults as a form of stress relief and relaxation isn’t new. Over 100 years ago, psychologist Carl Jung had some of his patients color symmetrical patterns. He would have his patients create and color mandalas, which helped him identify specific emotional issues.
However, the experts aren’t happy when the personal use of a coloring book is compared to a true therapy session. They’re also not thrilled with book publishers pushing their product’s “health” benefits or comparing coloring to a meditative or spiritual experience. Art therapist and psychotherapist, Cathy Malchiodi, writes that coloring is “…not a form of meditation nor is it a form of mindfulness.” She also indicates that it may lead to obsession. Basically, coloring is a fine, feel-good activity, but don’t call it meditation or art therapy.
The American Art Therapy Association’s official stance is this; “The AATA supports the use of coloring books for pleasure and self-care, however these uses should not be confused with the delivery of professional art therapy services, during which a client engages with a credentialed art therapist.”
Another expert art therapist reports there’s a big difference between creating art and coloring. There’s less use of the imagination by adding color to someone else’s drawing.
Therapist Drena Fagen says coloring can be mindful or mindless. Fagen also eloquently states, “Any creative endeavor that can in some way help somebody discover something about themselves or find a space that makes them feel safe and comfortable or allows them an opportunity to be with their own thoughts, I don’t see how we can criticize that. It seems like it’s only bringing good things to the world.”
Clinical psychologist Kimberly Wulfert shared her view, “In coloring, you’ve got this physical sensation of the tool you’re using touching on the paper. You also have the feeling in your hands and fingers holding this tool, and moving in different rhythms as you fill in the space.” Wulfert also says, “You’re being mindful, and when you move in a rhythmic fashion for an extended period of time, that becomes a meditation.”
Coloring to Heal
About a decade ago, a study looked at using coloring and art therapy for women suffering from cancer and the challenges of treatment. The patient’s physical as well as emotional distress caused by treatment was notably reduced when they engaged in art therapy. A second study revealed that cancer patients “overwhelmingly expressed comfort” during a therapy session and were enthusiastic about continuing the activity. Dr. Miriam Rigby observed that patients were finding a more peaceful state of mind with coloring and she adds, “We hope this current trend lasts because it provides distraction and seems to bring much rapport, joy, and relaxation.”
As a cancer patient, I can personally attest that coloring truly does take the grim edge off a long six hour session in a chemotherapy chair. Instead of thinking about the unpleasant effects of the medicines being dripped into my system, I lost myself in a pleasant world of bright hues. I was able to find a healthier state of mind with this redirection of focus and it helped me cope with the numerous discomforts I had to endure while I literally stared death in the face.
Coloring relaxes the muscles while stimulating the brain.
A friend in the nursing field has worked with people in rehabilitation for drug and alcohol abuse. She is intrigued by how coloring can help take a client’s mind away from unhealthy thoughts so they can focus on the healing process. She reported that coloring has helped a number of people suffering from addiction to redirect their energies and stay on track. Using coloring books to replace a negative habit, like alcohol abuse, with a less harmful pursuit is a desirable development. Grabbing a box of colored pencils isn’t the easy answer for everybody, but it can provide a sense of control in one’s life and fosters feelings of accomplishment when a page is finished.
Near my community, an activity coordinator in an elderly care home uses coloring books to help exercise the coordination and motor skills of otherwise mostly sedentary residents. Aside from the physical benefits, both the men and women enjoy it. “It’s relaxing and soothing,” the coordinator said. “Anyone can do it.” She describes one elderly woman with Parkinson's who was able to better control the shaking in her arm with a daily dose of coloring. Creative activity in a group also provides the residents with enjoyable social interaction and something to look forward to.
I’ve also seen individuals use coloring to help them cope with loss and grief. The activity helps them soldier though a particularly stressful period in their lives.
Are Adult Coloring Books Childish?
Critics believe western society is becoming “infantile” or that people who use coloring books are trying to escape adult life or recreate their youth. Sociologists show concern about “instant, simplified therapy” and frown on how some coloring book publishers are pushing the notion of having to return to childhood in order to reduce anxiety.
Trying to analyze or lump the activity of coloring into a simplified category just doesn’t work. Not every colored pencil toting adult is deliberately attempting to be a child again. After interviewing numerous "colorists" and weighing the views of art therapists, referring to coloring as “childish” is too simple of a generalization. Based on an extended period of observation, I saw that coloring is most often used as a stress reliever by busy adults and so far, this activity hasn’t caused the majority to quit their grown-up responsibilities.
An elderly person striving to maintain motor control while doing something he or she considers relaxing isn’t consciously attempting to be childish. Speaking from the viewpoint of a cancer patient using coloring to help ease the stress of treatment, I know I’m not deliberately striving to revert back to my younger days; it’s much more fun to have the privileges, maturity, and social benefits of a functional adult.
Shading in the lines of a coloring page is no more “childish” than jumping in a pool, going to the zoo, or watching TV.
But what about being “true” art?
Admittedly, coloring between the lines of someone else’s pattern isn’t the same as sketching your own free hand image. Yet, isn’t the process of shading, blending, selecting various hues, and adding your own touches a genuine creative act? These things do challenge one’s artistic side.
The preexisting images in a coloring book provide a structure that many find appealing.
Instead of facing a blank page, there is an inviting impetus to add onto and improve, to create something beautiful out of a colorless outline. Does it matter whether or not it’s “true art?” What matters is that it makes the individual happy and helps banish negativity.
Coloring still works even if you believe you lack artistic skill. “There is no set formula, no wrong way to do this,” a fellow book illustrator told me. We tend to be our own worst critics and some of us are self-conscious regarding our personal creative attempts. A coworker of mine buys coloring books but is hesitant to color them; she doubts her abilities. This is an opportunity to banish the shadow of self-doubt. Believing in your abilities and mustering the courage to step beyond self-imposed limits is a positive lesson in life. It's okay if you think you made a mistake. There are plenty of chances to try again.
There’s no need to be a perfectionist and the whole point is to just go with the flow. The key is to reduce stress and not find yourself getting anxious about doing it the “right way” when there really is no “right way.”