New York-based illustrator, artist and creativity expert Colleen Darby was pregnant when she received the worst news any expecting mother could get: She had cancer.
Terrified and overwhelmed with grief, Darby’s life came to a near standstill until her young daughter delivered her a small respite from her fear and anxiety in the form of a coloring book.
“When I was coloring with her, it was the only time I forgot about the cancer,” Darby said. “It was only for a few minutes, but it surprised me.”
Darby beat cancer and gave birth to a baby girl — who’s now 20 and attending college — but she carried the relief coloring books had given her when she acted as an artist in residence for the oncology ward of the Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008. During her time helping families vent their emotions through art, Darby saw coloring books transform many hospital waiting rooms from an atmosphere of tense waiting to calm silence.
“An oncology floor is a pretty stressful place, but I’d slide (the coloring sheet) onto the table and within minutes, the parents would be coloring,” Darby said. “I remember one mother — her child was undergoing brain surgery in the next room — and she couldn’t believe how much (coloring) relaxed her.”
Darby has since published her own coloring book, “The Mindful Mandala Coloring Book.” She didn’t know it back in 2008, but she was on the forefront of the current trend of adults finding relaxation and peace in an activity once relegated to childhood: coloring. In the past year, adult coloring books have become a niche industry.
In November, the American Booksellers Association released a list of its top 20 best-selling nonfiction paperback books, which contained four adult coloring books. Barnes and Noble Booksellers has dedicated sections of its stores to selling assorted adult coloring books and even held an in-store coloring event in November called the “All-American Art Unwind Event.”
Children’s art supply maker Crayola also announced it's getting into the adult coloring book market, releasing its own line of adult coloring books, fine-tip markers and watercolor pencils.
While adult coloring books have yet to be scientifically studied, adult coloring enthusiasts believe that in today’s world of constant connectivity, coloring books take adults to a place of mindfulness and peace that’s often missing from the stress-filled, screen-obsessed focus of modern life and work.
“I really do think that a lifetime of multitasking has left me occasionally incapable of subduing the entirety of my mind with one activity,” reporter Julie Beck wrote of adult coloring books in The Atlantic in November.
Experts say the simple act of coloring helps adults reduce stress by offering them something they may not realize they need: the childlike freedom of play.
“In modern culture, our lives can be very mundane and there just isn’t a lot of room for play,” Brooklyn-based spiritual psychotherapist Christine Gutierrez said. “Coloring brings us back to a state of being innocent and having fun and triggers a relaxation response of, ‘I’m free — I’m playing.’”
Peace through play and perfection
Adult coloring books might seem like kids’ stuff, but many of them actually play on a deep-seated human quest for perfection that begins in childhood.
Boston College psychologist and child play researcher Peter Gray says that play is how children make sense of the world around them through make-believe or mimicry — essentially acting as “practice” for adulthood. Like most forms of play, coloring subconsciously rewards children for being creative while also respecting rules — in this case, coloring inside the lines.
“The rule is that you have to stay within the lines, but you can be as creative as you want in choice of color,” Gray said. “Children see their structured creation emerge before them as they color.”
For adults, the soothing feelings behind coloring are likely twofold. First, for most people, coloring is pleasurable because of its close association with childhood.
University of Massachusetts Center for mindfulness professor, medical director and associate research director Carl Fulwiler says connecting with one’s inner child is a practice the center tries to teach its patients dealing with stress, depression and trauma to give them a sense of comfort and hope.
“We call it beginner’s mind because over the years, we develop filters and we relate to our experience on earth almost indirectly through our thoughts about experience rather than through the experience itself,” Fulwiler said. “As children, when we encounter something the first time, there’s wonder about the newness of it. Connecting with that childlike awe is something we encourage again and again.”
Second, adult coloring books tend to depict tessellations or mandalas — highly intricate designs with near-perfect symmetry, which developed human minds find highly satisfying.
In interior design, for instance, symmetry is believed to be comforting because human brains unconsciously associate it with the perfection in nature — a philosophy that mathematicians call the Golden Ratio. Put simply, the Golden Ratio is achieved when a number equals the sum of the two numbers that preceded it. When expressed geometrically, the number pattern forms a spiral shape found nearly everywhere in nature — from the pattern of seed heads in flowers to the coil of seashells to the curled shape of the Milky Way.
Similarly, humans equate facial symmetry in potential mates as a sign of good health and favorable genetics (though a 2014 British study found no such correlation).
The human love of symmetry is likely the delicate designs found in many adult coloring books foster a relaxed meditative state in many people, Darby said. When pitching her book to publishers, Darby focused on mandala designs specifically because she believes them to be more effective at relieving stress and anxiety — a claim a 2005 study supports.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, found that anxiety rates among participants dropped significantly lower than in participants who were given blank sheets of paper and told to color however they pleased.
But essentially, Darby thinks people today also just miss having tactile activities they lose when they work exclusively on computers.
“Before technology really came into play, we were still using our hands, but now we get very little actual hands-on creativity,” Darby said. “When I worked as an illustrator, I worked on a computer and it wasn’t until I started coloring that I realized, ‘Wow, I really miss this.’”
The new need for mindfulness
Fulwiler says as stress levels among Americans have risen over the years, so has the focus on the need for relief through meditation.
A 2013 Harris Interactive poll found that 8 in 10 Americans cite work as a main source of stress. A 2015 study from Harvard Business School and Stanford University found that stressful jobs correlated with a lower life expectancy for employees. In 2014, the American Psychological Association linked chronic stress with six leading causes of death such as heart disease, cancer and cirrhosis of the liver.
Adding to Americans’ stress is the way technology blurs the boundaries between work and home life. When more people can work from home, as the Atlantic reported last year, more people feel added pressure to perform.
“The pressures on people to be more productive and work longer hours have created this phenomenon where we feel like we’re always on call and have little chance to shut it out,” Fulwiler said. “Few of us can leave work at the office. So how do we deal with this pressure in our lives?”
The pressures to balance work and family life also play into a larger trend of economic stability, Gutierrez said.
“The traditional way of life where you go to work or school, you get Social Security and you’re fine — that stability’s not there anymore for a lot of people,” Gutierrez said. “If that stability is not there for us, we need to find inner strength and mindfulness, and coloring allows us to connect back to ourselves.”
Fulwiler says the Center for Mindfulness primarily focuses on breathing exercises and yoga to achieve a meditative state, but Gutierrez says coloring is a simpler path to a peaceful mindset for people who don’t like the idea of breaking out a yoga mat.
“Yoga can be intimidating for a lot of people, but anyone can color,” Gutierrez said. “Coloring offers less of a threatening feeling for those people, especially when they’re new to therapy and exploring their emotional terrain.”
While most people who deal with any kind of stress would likely benefit from a mindfulness practice like coloring, Darby said, few may expect it to be the beacon in life’s dark moments as it was for her.
“It doesn’t take a lot of money or a lot of skill. It’s just an easy way to access that quiet place we all need more of,” Darby said. “Get yourself a good set of colored pencils and just give yourself 15 minutes a day. It could change your life.”