Why adult colouring books are here to stay and how they relieve stress

You'll have seen them piled high in bookshops: adult colouring books are a phenomenon - and some say they are good for your health

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 9:59am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 9:59am
MCT

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When Brandon Blaine's teenage daughter was in the hospital, the 43-year-old from the US state of Texas didn't turn to meditation, yoga or therapy for comfort. Instead, he picked up colouring pencils and his daughter's colouring book.

"There was some real therapy in doing that while she was in for over a week," says Blaine.

Now, one of his creations from that fraught time - a teal mehndi-style peacock with a vibrant red-and-pink tail - reminds him of what it was like. And that his daughter got better.

Adult colouring books have been flying off the presses over the past few months, appearing on bestseller lists for Amazon and Publishers Weekly, and also in Hong Kong

Colouring books are for kids, you say? Think again. These feature intricate designs of places real and fictional, from streetscapes of Paris to secret gardens to mandalas, a Buddhist symbol.

Just like meditation, yoga, prayer, if you focus on something repetitive and soothing, it can hold your attention and allows you that time to relax
Professor Shayla Holub

Adults who colour say the books are an easy and accessible creative outlet - a way to do art, even if they aren't the next Monet. It's a way to relax, unplug and return to carefree childhood, they say. Call it colouring books doubling as cultural criticism.

" Colouring is one of those activities that I didn't know how much I enjoyed it when I was little until I did it again," says Sophie Soueid, 17, of Arlington, Texas, who picked up a colouring book from the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

The book, full of designs like "a rabbit made from flowers and vines, a man with a beard made up of buildings, or even a skull made up of vegetables, was probably one of the stranger colouring books I found, but that's probably why I like it," Soueid says. "It's stuff I wish I could draw myself."

Many of the adults that Jane Avila, a licensed clinical social worker and art therapist, works with tell her they gave up on art after negative experiences as children. But because the structure is already set and all the artist has to do is choose a colour, colouring books can reopen that world.

"It allows you to go into the process without having to make all those detailed decisions," Avila says. "What are the chances of screwing up, anyway? It's a very low-risk activity that's very rewarding."

Blaine, who says he can't draw well freehand, picked it up for that very reason. It's turned into a family activity. Each family member has their own preferred tools, and even their own colouring kits. As the rest of his household caught what Blaine calls "the colouring bug", it turned out the person least interested in colouring was the person you'd least expect: Blaine's seven-year-old.

Even beyond his daughter's hospital stay, Blaine says he's found the hobby therapeutic when dealing with normal, everyday stresses. After a working day staring at computer screens, followed by 90 minutes of traffic to get home and then helping his children with homework, the last thing he wants to do is watch TV or play computer games.

The process of choosing a page to colour, a colour to use and how to use it, is likely relaxing for the same reasons as more traditional stress-relieving tactics, says Shayla Holub, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

"Just like meditation, yoga, prayer, if you focus on something repetitive and soothing, it can hold your attention and allows you that time to relax," Holub says, adding that colouring could reduce muscle tension, heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and levels of cortisol, the stress-related hormone, in the bloodstream.

According to Holub, there isn't much empirical research supporting the stress-relieving role of colouring books. But Avila says she has plenty of anecdotal proof. The process of colouring, or focusing and directing one's energy, Avila says, can clear your brain of routine mental chatter, or what she calls "monkey mind".

The back-and-forth movement of a pencil or crayon, Avila believes, engages both spheres of the brain, reinforcing the connection between the two lobes and turning off the frontal lobe, which controls your organisation and regulation of your surroundings. That's why losing yourself in colouring can make you feel more relaxed and balanced.

Soueid says she has found this to be true of colouring. It's calming, but it also gives her a sense of accomplishment. And like Avila, Soueid thinks we'd all benefit from being a little more connected to our childhoods.

"I feel like society kind of expects adults to be a lot more accomplished in whatever they do. So if an adult wants to colour something, they have to take it a step further and create a whole picture on their own, not just the colouring," Soueid says.

"I don't think there's any shame in wanting to be artsy even if you've never had any training, so I don't see why colouring books shouldn't be available for adults too."

Playing is an integral part of well-being, and we all need to play
Art therapist Jane Avila

If publishers are pushing the idea that you're never too old to colour, that's especially true for older adults, Holub says. Colouring could help mitigate some of the declines that come with age by keeping the mind and body active, and in the process possibly improving people's fine motor skills, coordination and perceptual skills, she says.

That's not to say everyone will find colouring beneficial. Holub says it may not relieve stress in those who find the idea of staying inside the lines makes them tense or if colouring makes them think about chores they should be doing instead. Still, it's been shown that creativity in and of itself has health benefits: it makes people happier, and lessens anxiety and stress, which in turn can help prevent weight gain, upper respiratory tract infections and cardiovascular disease.

She also says that for some, it could turn into a regressive coping mechanism - used to repress things they should be dealing with. There's greater empirical evidence supporting the cathartic value of free-writing about thoughts and feelings, Holub says, citing a study that showed students who wrote about their days went to the health centre less, used less aspirin and got better grades.

Colourers and psychologists alike cite the activity as a way to unplug. Blaine, who works as an IT software developer, calls it an "analogue experience". And any activity that takes you away from screens is helpful, Holub says.

But in this digital age, you're never away from the screen for long. Online communities have formed around the activity on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest. Johanna Basford, the author of Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book, one of the most popular adult colouring books - and who, according to Publishers Weekly, is credited with starting the trend's popularity - is just one of several artists who have Facebook pages and websites where people can share their works.

To those who are still scoffing at the idea of a grown man or woman picking up a pack of coloured pens or pencils, Avila says it's an attitude born of "a pseudo maturity level".

"Playing is an integral part of well-being, and we all need to play," she says. "If playing is activity that engages, relaxes, restores you, why not? Is working out a waste of time, or reading novels, or going to the movies a waste of time? What do you have to lose? Try it."

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