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Adult Coloring Books & Stress/Anxiety: A "Scientific" Experiment

Adult coloring books have been a fad in the psychological community for a few years. At first, I wasn’t sure if I bought the idea behind the fad—that coloring books help reduce anxiety and even anger. The idea seemed a little ridiculous to me: as an adult, why would I draw in a coloring book and how would it even help me? Would I start to need coloring books and become vengeful if I didn’t have access to one, like Gerard Butler in 300?

In all seriousness, I've never felt like I had the time to pick up a coloring book. Now, I have the time - and my stance on therapy and the arts has changed after working at Playmore & Prosper. I’ve seen how expressive arts therapies make real changes for kids and adults. Even if coloring books aren’t a type of expressive arts therapy, they’re close enough to be in the same family – and I’m more willing to buy the idea that coloring, as an art, could help improve our mental health.

So, I’ve decided to write a blog testing out the anti-anxiety effects of a coloring book, with the understanding that this ‘study’ is about as unscientific as you can get. Also keep in mind that I’m using a coloring book for everyone vs. a coloring book marketed to adults. Another fun disclaimer: in no way can we say that this blog contributes to empirical research on coloring books and mental health. That said, I still feel like I’ll be able to at least attempt an answer to this question: Does coloring help relieve stress, or do coloring books fail to live up to their hype?

Let’s rewind a little bit and discuss the origins of the fad. Many studies in the psychological community claim that coloring books help with anxiety and anger. For example, a recent study found that coloring freehand, in addition to coloring in books, is effective at significantly reducing anxiety for young adults (Ashlock, Miller-Perrin, & Krumrei-Mancuso, 2019). One reason for this might be that coloring increases mindfulness because it engages attention and creativity in a deliberate way (Eaton & Tieber, 2017). Or, coloring in a structured way – literally, coloring “inside the lines” of a coloring book – could lead to a flow-like state because it is immersive and demanding to the brain (Forkosh & Drake, 2017). Either way, coloring seems to have a beneficial effect – even, in one study, decreasing depression as well as anxiety (Flett, Lie, Riordan, Thomspon, Conner, & Hayne, 2017).