Color Me Happy ...
more than just a hobby
It’s no secret that we all enjoy a good coloring session. But why is it so peaceful? Why do we automatically get lost in it and feel like we’re getting some much-needed self-care? It can’t just be about childhood nostalgia and making something appealing to look at. Well, that’s because it’s not! Scientific research is catching up to this long-used method of relaxation and mindfulness, discovering new ways it benefits both our bodies and mental health. It’s about time we delve into this simple, yet effective, hobby and view it as actually much more than what it’s classified as.
the roots of coloring
Let’s go way back. Over 100 years ago, Carl Jung, a world-renowned, Swiss psychiatrist was regularly using coloring to relax his patients and assist them in their own self-discovery exercises. Jung was a founder of our modern psychiatric approaches, focusing mainly on analytics and working side by side with Sigmund Freud. Through his decades of practice and research, Jung found that simply coloring helped break down his patients’ barriers so they could delve into their more complex mental health issues.
Fast forward to today and hobby-based methods have made their way into all areas of psychology and general well-being studies. They’re even infiltrating some government health care plans, being appropriately coined, “social prescribing”. Canadian psychiatrists and psychologists are prescribing museum visits, concerts, and trips to the library as a means of combating some mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and burn-out. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London even saw a 90% improvement in physical and mental well-being when encouraging individuals to play instruments.
where does coloring fit in?
Wait…I thought we were talking about coloring. Ah yes, astute reader, we are, but the increase in serotonin levels associated with these other creative activities applies to coloring as well. Research conducted by the University of Otago in New Zealand found that over a week, anxiety and depression levels were significantly reduced amongst individuals tasked with a logic-based, coloring exercise. Other studies have found a reduction in stress and PTSD associated manifestations in a wide age group of 19 to 67-year-olds. There was even an improvement shown in recall and focus with Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients.
All this information is well and good, but why is it such a remedy for all these mental health struggles? Before we move on, we want to make sure our claim is clear. Coloring does not cure anything. What it does do is significantly improve mental states, specifically related to stress levels and mindfulness. For example, in the case of those individuals battling Alzheimer’s and Dementia, bringing forth that feeling we all get when coloring was enough to also spark a memory and improve cognitive focus, if even for a moment.
so, what does it actually do?
Ok, by now we know coloring is beneficial, but we don’t really know why. Let’s delve into it. When we’re coloring, we’re deciding what actual shades to pick, where to place them, and how to make it all visually appealing. This requires both sides of our brain, simultaneously involving logic and creativity in a passive, mindful way. Guided coloring, such as coloring posters with pre-determined shapes and lines, is shown to be more effective at reducing these anxiety-related symptoms when compared to free drawing…unless you’re an amazing, free-hand artist that is. When coloring in a pre-defined space, although our logic is still being applied, it’s nowhere near as active, allowing us to truly just exist in the moment we’re in. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for problem-solving, is still activated, but not at a detriment to your stress levels. In other words, decisions have to be made, but none that would jolt you back to that ‘consequence for your actions’ mindset.
As both sides of that glorious brain are lighting up, your motor skills and vision are focused on the task at hand, not the surrounding, or internal, stressors. There are two main types of contextualized anxiety…state and trait. Coloring is shown to reduce both but is more effective at reducing state anxiety, the anxiety associated with what’s going on around you and in your life that may cause mental discomfort. Basically, you’re allowing yourself to be in the present moment. This present moment existence is similar to that of meditation or yoga. Focusing on something outside of yourself and your worried brain, such as balancing or breathing or staying inside the lines, slows down your heart rate enough to be mindful of where you are. The amygdala, or fear center of your mind, is eased, allowing you to enter into this restful, present state of self-care. While you’re coloring, you can sort through things that a busy mind marginalizes and de-prioritizes during the day without even knowing it’s happening.
This mental sorting of stress-inducing thoughts and events that happens while you’re coloring is similar to the methods used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT prioritizes recognizing negative patterns of thought, being conscious of them, and making changes to reidentify them. Coloring follows a similar route of increasing mindfulness and present thinking to make room for reidentifying anxiety and subsequently quieting it. Coloring is just that. It doesn’t need to be anything else and when the world outside and the world inside are both so complicated, migrating towards simplistic, joyful, and almost whimsical tasks should be the answer we turn to.
coloring in today’s world
We definitely don’t have to be the ones to say that today’s world is anything but calm. New stressors, overstimulation, seemingly consistent hurdles to jump over, and the unfortunate mental repercussions of all these affect our daily lives. If we’ve ever needed coloring, it’s now. Not only does it allow us to remove ourselves from any chaos we’re experiencing, outside, or in our own minds, it forces us to stop and take a conscious break.
As we mentioned, overstimulation is a pervasive battle that most people deal with without even knowing it. We’re constantly bombarded with TV, advertisements, phones, video games, and the like, oftentimes using these things as methods of relaxation. The issue then arises of how these stimulating activities and hobbies affect our brains and lead to inevitable burn-out. As you can imagine, consistent usage of electronics can be detrimental to sleeping patterns, anxiety levels, and the consequent inability to reach a state of peace. The light emitted from electronics, like TVs and phones, has a direct relationship to lowered levels of melatonin…your natural sleep hormone. We’re choosing these activities to relax when in reality they’re really only making that harder on us. Coloring, with its almost meditative-like effects, is the perfect way to unwind, still use your brain, but also slowly migrate towards that state of conscious neutrality needed to end our days. As we’ve established, coloring can be used for general relaxation, but we think it’s important to talk about it as beneficial for all stages of your day.
moral of the story
Thanks for sticking with us through this history lesson, psychiatric evaluation, and slight critical analysis of modern society…it’s been a whirlwind. Really, the main goal here was to exemplify the endless mental and physical benefits of integrating coloring into your daily routine…in whatever way works best for you. Completing a task like coloring, however small, is shown to increase feelings of self-efficacy, especially in those suffering from anxiety and/or depression. Coloring for even 10 minutes a day could be that slight push you need to jump onto that next task with confidence and a clearer outlook. Maybe it’s just a break from the noise. Maybe it’s a way to dip your toes into your untapped or ignored creative side. Maybe it’s the only time you get to yourself. Whatever your reason is for coloring, we promise only positive things will come from it.
We want you to color outside the lines when it comes to your mental well-being and if something as simple, affordable, and accessible as coloring can work wonders for anxiety, stress, PTSD, Alzheimer’s, Dementia, heart rate, problem-solving, sleep cycles, and beyond…why not give it a try? Here’s to you finding some peace and hopefully never finding the edges of your coloring poster.