3 Reasons Adult Coloring Can Actually Relax Your Brain

Find out what's behind the latest craze


It’s the latest craze. Where you might expect to see children, you find adults: They sit with colored pencils in their hands, bent over the swirls and intricate patterns of coloring books. Yes, coloring books. They are losing themselves in patterns of mandalas, curved flowers and runaway stems. This is a world they create and escape into, and it’s become a popular form of relaxation.

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But how does it work? What does this pastime do to our brains to elicit such pleasure and calm?

According to clinical psychologist Scott M. Bea, Psy.D., it has everything to do with refocusing our attention. “Adult coloring requires modest attention focused outside of self-awareness. It is a simple activity that takes us outside ourselves. In the same way, cutting the lawn, knitting, or taking a Sunday drive can all be relaxing.”

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What does adult coloring do to relax people?

Dr. Bea cites three reasons adult coloring can be calming:

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  1. Attention flows away from ourselves. A simple act, such as coloring, takes your attention away from yourself and onto the present-moment event. “In this way, it is very much like a meditative exercise,” Dr. Bea says.
  2. It relaxes the brain. When thoughts are focused on a simple activity, your brain tends to relax. “We are not disturbed by our own thoughts and appraisals,” he says. “The difficulties of life evaporate from our awareness, and both our bodies and our brains may find this rewarding.”
  3. Low stakes make it pleasurable. The fact that the outcome of coloring is predictable also can be relaxing. “It is hard to screw up coloring, and, even if you do, there is no real consequence. As result, adult coloring can be a wonderful lark, rather than an arduous test of our capacities,” he adds.

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Why does it help some people but not others?

Adult coloring does not relax everyone. It depends on the individual and their prior experiences. Dr. Bea suspects that the more a person enjoyed coloring as a child, the more likely he or she is to respond to it positively as an adult. “It has been my impression that adults choose variants of activities they loved as children for their adult recreations,” he says.

Is there research to support it as a form of relaxation?

Research on adult coloring specifically is limited, as it has risen in popularity relatively recently. However art therapy has been used for many years with much success.

In a 2006 study, researchers found that mindfulness art therapy for women with cancer helped to significantly decrease the symptoms of physical and emotional distress during their treatment. Art therapy has also been helpful to people cope with other conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions and trauma.

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“While adult coloring may differ slightly from this mindfulness art therapy, I suspect the adult coloring would yield similar results. It is likely that its therapeutic benefits would be similar to listening to a person’s favorite music,” Dr. Bea says.

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Why has this become popular now?

Having hobbies to help de-stress is nothing new, whether people like to golf, cook, build model airplanes or put together scrap books. People are also open to finding new ways to unwind. “We have a very stress-inducing culture, and I think individuals are always seeking new ways to reduce tension, restore feelings of well-being, and reduce the toll that our stressful lives take on our health,” Dr. Bea says.