Coloring used to be an activity reserved for small children in elementary grades, but these days adult coloring books are topping bestseller lists and flying off the shelves. Turns out, coloring and adult coloring books may have therapeutic benefits for many different conditions, including anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.

The research on adult coloring books

Art therapy has long been recognized as a valuable way to help patients process everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to a cancer diagnosis and treatment. The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as a way to:

“[E]xplore feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem.”

While there is little formal research into the therapeutic benefits of adult coloring books, one ground-breaking study in 2005 did find that coloring a mandala helped ease anxiety. Researchers Nancy A. Curry and Tim Kasser recruited 84 study participants and asked them to rate their anxiety on a nine-point scale using the 14 items of the State Anxiety Inventory.

Participants were then asked to recall a situation in which they felt very anxious, writing it down in detail. The State Anxiety Inventory was administered again, and the group was divided into three coloring groups: a mandala, a plaid pattern, and a blank sheet of paper. Each group was instructed to color for 20 minutes, and anxiety levels were measured again.

The authors report:

“By measuring anxiety levels upon entering the study, after a brief anxiety induction and after 20 minutes of coloring, we were able to demonstrate that participants who colored on a blank piece of paper showed no reductions in anxiety, whereas those participants who colored a mandala actually decreased their anxiety levels to levels below that which they reported before the anxiety induction.”

This decrease in anxiety wasn’t just patient-reported but can be measured physically as well. Dr. Stan Rodski, a neuropsychologist with his own line of adult coloring books, has also studied the physical effects of coloring on the brain. In addition to creating a meditative space of calm and focus, he noted:

“The most amazing things occurred — we started seeing changes in heart rate, changes in brainwaves.”

Dr. Joel Pearson, a brain scientist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, pointed out that there is an element of mindfulness that works to soothe anxiety by replacing the source of anxiety with a focus on something else. This could be key in both mental and physical changes that occur when coloring. He noted:

“You have to look at the shape and size, you have to look at the edges, and you have to pick a color. It should occupy the same parts of the brain that stops any anxiety-related mental imagery happening as well. … Anything that helps you control your attention is going to help.”

Adult coloring books as therapeutic tools?

For some, adult coloring books are not seen as art therapy so much as a therapeutic tool.

Marygrace Berberian, a certified art therapist and the clinical assistant professor and program coordinator for the graduate art therapy program at New York University, noted that it is the solo nature of the activity that distinguishes adult coloring books as therapeutic rather than therapy:

“Coloring itself cannot be called art therapy because art therapy relies on the relationship between the client and the therapist.”

That said, Berberian goes on to note that coloring does, in fact, offer those who feel they have no artistic talent a way to access the therapeutic benefits of art:

“My experience has been that those participants who are more guarded find a lot of tranquility in coloring an image. It feels safer and it creates containment around their process.”

In other words, you needn’t be a highly skilled artist to reap the benefits of art. Adult coloring books are familiar from childhood and only ask that you select an image, find a color you like, and get started. There is no pressure to fill a blank page or come up with your own ideas.

Some users of adult coloring books also find that coloring fills a niche for them in that it keeps their hands occupied while they are doing something else, like watching TV or listening to a speaker. Theresa Citerella, an art therapy student at Lesley University, noted that she sees her classmates and her clients using adult coloring books to help them focus:

“A lot of my fellow graduate classmates bring these coloring books into the classroom setting as a tool to focus more on lectures…I [also] find the clients who are fidgeting and cannot sit still ask for coloring the books in order to concentrate on group discussions. We have several adult coloring books at my site to offer the clients.”

Adult coloring books and pain patients

Because adult coloring books offer mindfulness benefits, many pain patients may find that they are helpful when it comes to dealing with the most painful days. On a practical level, pain patients visit many different doctors and spend a lot of time in waiting rooms. Adult coloring books can help to pass the time, distract from the pain, and promote a calm, meditative state.

Stephanie at Chronic Pain Life notes that one of the best things about adult coloring books for chronic pain is that anyone can do it, anywhere, anytime:

“For people with chronic pain or illness, the great thing about adult coloring is that it can be done just about anywhere. You can color laying down, standing up or sitting. You can be in bed, at a desk, in the waiting room of your doctor’s office or my favourite place to colour, at the beach.”

Getting started with adult coloring books

There are a number of very popular adult coloring books on the market right now, ranging from simple meditative patterns to creatively drawn curse words. Coloring implements are largely a matter of preference, but many people opt for markers or gel pens for ease of use and depth of color.

Finally, if simply reading is more your style, check out this list of free books online you can read from.

What about you? Have you given adult coloring books a try? Would you?