3 Reasons Adult Coloring Can Actually Relax Your Brain

Find out what's behind the latest craze

Adult coloring books have flooded shelves everywhere in the last few years. From grocery stores to your favorite online retailer, these books — with their empty patterns of mandalas, animals and floral designs — seem to be everywhere. But what makes them so popular?

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Many books tout the benefits of coloring — a thing kiddos have known for ages. Coloring can help you channel your inner artist, de-stress and bring a sense of peace. But is there truly a benefit to coloring for adults? And what does this pastime do to our brains to bring about such pleasure and calm?

According to clinical psychologist Scott M. Bea, PsyD, it has everything to do with refocusing our attention. 

“Adult coloring requires modest attention focused outside of self-awareness, Dr. Bea says. “It’s 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.”

What does adult coloring do to relax people?

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

  1. Attention flows away from ourselves. A simple act, such as coloring, takes your attention away from yourself (and those things that are stressing you out!) 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 this simple activity, your brain tends to relax. “You’re not disturbed by your own thoughts and appraisals,” he says. “The difficulties of life evaporate from your awareness, and both your body and your brain may find this rewarding.”
  3. Low stakes make it pleasurable. Go ahead: color outside the lines! The outcome of coloring isn’t predictable or prescriptive. It can be as neat — or as messy — as you choose, and this is one of its relaxing perks. “It is hard to screw up coloring, and, even if you do, there is no real consequence. Adult coloring can be a wonderful escape, rather than a demanding test of our capacities,” he adds. 

Why does it help some people but not others?

Adult coloring doesn’t relax everyone. Whether or not you enjoy coloring depends a lot on your prior experiences. Dr. Bea suspects that if you enjoyed coloring as a child, you likely will enjoy it as an adult. 

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“Adults typically choose forms 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 coping with other conditions, including depression, anxiety, addictions and trauma.

In a more recent study, researchers evaluated the effectiveness of coloring a complex geometric design, like a mandala, on reducing anxiety with a group of undergraduate students. The results showed a decrease in anxiety levels for the students and suggested the practice created a sort of meditative state that is beneficial for reducing anxiety. 

“While adult coloring may differ slightly from 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. 

But with the current state of daily life with COVID-19, and so many uncertainties looming in the distance, coloring might just be the ticket to help you unwind and re-center.  

“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.

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