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  • Coloring As Stress Relief

    AbstractColoring for stress relief has been a thing for several years now, and it’s continuing to grow in popularity. Every time I go into the bookstore, it seems that there are more coloring books than there were the last time. At last count there were no less than 3 tables devoted to adult coloring books.

    But does it work? I know several people who say it did nothing for them and others who swear by it. So who’s right? Is it an individual thing or does it matter how and what you color? The short answer is: It depends.

    On the most basic level, this is what you need:

    • Something to color
    • Something to color with
      • crayons
      • colored pencils
      • markers
      • something else that puts color on the page

    Beyond that, there are a few things you need to know and consider before you try coloring for stress relief.

    Coloring Your Way to Calm

    I love me some coloring. I love it so much that I bought special colored pencils that practically deposit the color on the page for me and give me incredible control over shading. Not that you need fancy tools to benefit from coloring, but if you have tools you love they’ll make you more likely to sit down and color, and most of us could use as much motivation we can get. For example, I was perfectly happy using an old set of colored pencils and was getting a lot of stress relief from my coloring but I wanted a few more color options. Upon hearing of my desire for more color, my husband pulled out a small old set of colored pencils he’d had (that I somehow didn’t know about) and let me use them. They were heaven and the old set I’d been perfectly happy with suddenly seemed incredibly difficult to use… Kind of like mixing cookie dough by hand after you’ve finally experienced the ease of using an electric mixer. So we bought a larger set of the heavenly pencils for me to use and I now color even more than I did before.

    So… motivation is important. The most important motivation is that you enjoy coloring. After that, you need a desire to find an enjoyable way to relieve some stress.  Those are the most important motivators. But as you’ve seen, quality tools can provide additional motivation as can the images themselves.

    Round mandalaThe images. I could go on and on about the images in some of the coloring books, but I’ll spare you. Suffice it to say, the best images to color for stress relief are mandalas and mosaics. Their lack of clear image allows the rational grass-is-green-and-sky-is-blue part of your brain to disengage. This allows the creative part of your brain to come out to play. Some mandalas and mosaics will have distinct images within them, and that’s ok as long as you don’t worry about coloring them the “right” color… try leaving them white or coloring them a fantastical color.

    Coloring mandalas and mosaics can be a form of mindfulness meditation and mindfulness meditation has proven stress relieving benefits.

    That covers the what, so let’s move on to the how.

    When coloring mandalas and mosaics the first thing to remember is this: Forget what color things are supposed to be. Don’t worry what the final image will look like. You want to be creative without trying to be creative.

    Here’s how you do that:

    1. Look at the picture. Don’t study it, just look at it.
    2. Look at your colors.
    3. Choose a color. Don’t think about it, just choose the first color that catches your eye.
    4. Look at the picture again.
    5. Choose a spot to color with the pencil/marker/crayon you chose in step 3. Don’t think about it, just choose the first spot that catches your attention.
    6. Color that spot. Pay attention to how the pencil/marker/crayon feels in your hand and how it feels as it moves across the page. Pay attention to HOW the color is delivered: Are there stroke marks? If so, what directions? Does the color flow immediately with the first stroke or does it start slow and build up as you color?
    7. Repeat steps 2-6 until the picture is completely colored.
    8. If you’re the type that’s normally critical of your own work, walk away from the page or cover it up and don’t look at if for a few days. When you look at it later, you’ll see it with less critical eyes than you did when you initially finished it.

    By the time you’ve finished coloring the page, your breathing should have slowed and deepened. Your thoughts should also have slowed considerably. You’ll feel calmer, centered, and more grounded, as if you’d just finished meditating. Congratulations, you’ve successfully used coloring as a form of stress relief.

    When Coloring Goes Bad

    There are a few scenarios that will keep your coloring activity from relieving stress:

    • Traditional coloring pages – I know that kids coloring books are a lot cheaper than the adult versions, but that picture of a tiger in the woods is not going to help shush your rational mind or tone down your stress response. You’ll end up looking for the right shades of orange or brown or orangish brown to color the tiger, the right green for the trees, and the perfect shade of yellow for the flowers. If you have a limited palate to choose from, it could even increase your stress level.
      • Now… if you can channel your inner 2 year old and color the tiger green and blue, the trees purple and the flowers brown, you might actually be able to relieve some stress. Maybe.
      • If you’re an experienced meditator, especially if you’re experienced in performing activities in a mindful manner, traditional coloring pages shouldn’t be an obstacle.
    • Coloring apps – On the surface, coloring apps seem great… they’re environmental because you’re not using up a bunch of paper and ink, they take less time, and many of them won’t let you color outside the lines. The problem comes if they do too much for you. I’ve seen many coloring apps (often labeled as stress relieving) in which you simply tap the color you want and then tap a space to autofill that area with the selected color. The stress relief that people get from coloring comes from the act of slowing down, choosing the colored pencil/marker/crayon, and slowly, intentionally, and mindfully coloring an area and then repeating that process with each area on the page. These apps remove all of the mindfulness which, in turn, removes the stress relieving aspect of coloring.
    • Time – If you treat coloring as you would any other task and try to rush through it, you’ve missed the point entirely. It’s not about the time, the colors, or the finished product. It’s about the process, and the process takes time.

    Beautiful Images

    colorful mandalaThe wonderful thing about the popularity of coloring is that you can find coloring books filled with just about anything you might be interested in. There are books of Celtic mandalas, abstract flowers, nature mosaics, mythologically themed abstracts and mosaics, Indian mandalas, and many more.

    So what are you waiting for? Go out to your local independent bookstore (or if there isn’t one in your town visit the big chain or online store) and get yourself a lovely coloring book and some colored pencils and color your way to less stress.