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).
Regardless of how coloring books work, these studies have provided (preliminary) evidence that coloring benefits mental health. The wider pop psychology community has fully picked up on the hype:
Credited to me.me/i/did-you-know-the-adult-coloring-book-craze-was-so-2678118,
& didyouknowblog.com, and theodysseyonline.com
This makes sense, given that 9 of the most popular books bought on Amazon in 2015 were adult coloring books (Moss, 2015). While the craze has died down a little bit in 2019, adult coloring books are still commonly researched in the psychological community – and, crucially, bought by consumers.
Getting back to my non-scientific study, I decided to test the idea that coloring leads to less feelings of stress by “replicating” Ashlock, Miller-Perrin, & Krumrei-Mancuso’s “The Effectiveness of Structured Coloring Activities for Anxiety Reduction.” Less science leads to more creativity: I can pretty much guarantee I had more fun with this study than Ashlock et al. did. Run through the steps of the study with me to see my results - and, more importantly, discover whether I can color inside the lines.
Step 1: Anne’s Baseline State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Adults
I took a 40-question baseline anxiety test called the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Adults (STAI); it can be found at https://www.nsrusa.org/score & was made available through Mind Garden, Inc. Questions were on a 4-point scale, with statements like “I feel worried” and “I feel nervous.” Scores ranged from 1-4 from “not at all” (1) to “very much so” (4). I scored a state score of 45, which is around the average score of participants in Ashlock’s study (43). I don’t know how I feel about being average, but I guess average – or below average – is the goal for a test on anxiety:
Credited to: me.me/i/when-you-start-feeling-good-about-yourself-and-then-that-423399
Step 2: The Fun Part: Coloring
I used the book Butterfly Gardens: Coloring for Everyone as my coloring book. Since I need to be a unique little snowflake (butterfly, in this case?), I added a caption to my picture – about my own uniqueness:
Coloring was surprisingly tedious and time-consuming. I was expecting it to be a lot of fun (as you can see from the caption for this step), but I found that it wasn’t my thing. I think that I would have liked free-form drawing better, because it would have let me express my creativity more – and clearly, creativity is important to me.
Step 3: Anne’s Post-Test Anxiety
After coloring, I scored a 40 on the test for anxiety – a 5-point reduction vs. the 9-point reduction (from 43 to 34) that was found in the study. Maybe I received less of a benefit than the other participants because I found the process tedious, but achieving a 5-point reduction is still decent. That said, let’s not even consider the headache of whether the expectation of having less anxiety influenced how I answered questions – or any number of other things that might have made my score decrease more than it would have otherwise on the post-test.
Credited to: imgflip.com/i/1qdll1 by author: GeoffNET
Step 4: Conclusion: Answering my Question
My original question was whether adult coloring books help reduce stress & if they live up to their hype. The short answer to this question is yes, adult coloring books help with anxiety, but no (in my opinion), they don’t live up to the hype. I was expecting a lot from this exercise because of the fantastic things I’ve heard about adult coloring books. While coloring helped me feel a little bit more relaxed, there wasn’t much of an effect overall. I feel like the act of creating something original is crucial to the process – and that’s really what expressive arts therapies are all about. I could picture expressive arts activities (e.g., creating collages, dancing, or playing an instrument) reducing anxiety in a more significant way than “coloring within the lines” of coloring books.
That said, I think that we need to think beyond the genre of the adult coloring book to consider the expressive arts themselves. People usually think of expressive arts therapies as being in the realm of children – but, I think if there’s any takeaway from the adult coloring book craze, it’s that art benefits adults too. We all need to pay a little more attention to our inner child, whether it's through coloring books, other types of expressive arts activities, or being more present in our everyday lives like children are.
Ashlock, L.E., Miller-Perrin, C., & Krumrei-Mancuso, E. (2018). “The Effectiveness of Structured
Coloring Activities for Anxiety Reduction.” Art Therapy, 35(4), 195-201.
Eaton, J., & Tieber, C. (2017). “The Effects of Coloring on Anxiety, Mood, and Perseverance.” Art Therapy Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 34(1), 42-46.
Flett, J.A.M., Lie, C., Riordan B.C., Thomspon, L.M., Conner, T.S., & Hayne, H. (2017). “Sharpen Your Pencils: Preliminary Evidence that Adult Coloring Reduces Depressive Symptoms and Anxiety.” Creativity Research Journal, 29(4), 409-416.
Forkosh, J., & Drake, J.E. (2017). “Coloring Versus Drawing: Effects of Cognitive Demand on Mood Repair, Flow, and Enjoyment.” Art Therapy: Journal of American Art Therapy Association, 3(2), 75-82.
Moss, C. (2015, December 28). 9 of the most popular books on Amazon are adult coloring books – here they are. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/best-adult-coloring-books-on-amazon-2015-12