Can Coloring Relieve Stress and Anxiety in Adults?

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Late last year, we learned of Blue Star Coloring, a San Antonio- and Portland, Oregon-based company that creates adult coloring books that are wildly popular on Amazon

One of the young company's most successful coloring books is a stress relieving series. So we got to wondering whether coloring can actually reduce stress. Enter University of the Incarnate Word Associate Professor of Psychology Stefanie S. Boswell.

I reached out to her for a story that will publish Wednesday in the next edition of the San Antonio Current that is about Blue Star Coloring and the adult coloring craze. I couldn't fit our whole email exchange into that upcoming print story, but I wanted to be sure to publish Boswell's thoughts about adult coloring in full.

And that upcoming issue, by the way, is going to be really cool and fun for readers. With that said, here's how Boswell answered my questions concerning adult coloring:

Can coloring relieve anxiety or stress or improve concentration on another topic?

There is a limited amount of research focused specifically on coloring designs; most of the research is on the broader approach of art therapy. During art therapy, individuals express their thoughts and emotions through their own artistic creations (rather than color designs generated by someone else). That being said, though, there are a handful of studies focusing specifically on the effects of coloring complex designs on anxiety. Those researchers found that coloring complex designs akin to those seen adult coloring books does significantly reduce anxiety in as little as 20 minutes. Coloring complex designs also reduced anxiety more than freestyle coloring.

Coloring complex designs likely has its effect by inducing a meditative-like state. While many people think meditation takes the form of an individual sitting cross-legged on the floor, that is only one of many ways to approach meditation. During meditation, a person exercises control over attention, focusing it on only one thing (what that thing is depends on the style of meditation – for some people, it is repetition of a word or sound; for some it is focusing on one’s breath; for some it may be a focus on some other bodily sensation, like a feeling of muscle relaxation; for others, it may be focusing on something for which they are grateful). Focusing attention on only one thing in the present moment while letting other thoughts and worries fall away reduces stress and anxiety. Focusing one’s full attention on coloring a complex design likely focuses concentration for a period of time they way that meditation does.

It is also possible the simple fun of coloring helps reduce anxiety. For decades, behavioral therapists have emphasized the importance of re-engaging with enjoyed activities when individuals are anxious and depressed. When people are impaired by anxiety and depression, they often disengage from or stop doing altogether things that they enjoy and find rewarding. As a part of treatment, behavior therapists work with clients to incorporate engaging and pleasurable activities into their days; doing so helps lift mood. In addition to the meditative aspect, the simple enjoyable nature of coloring may also help it reduce anxiety.

With regard to coloring improving concentration, I could not find any research addressing that specifically. However, if coloring complex designs does have its effects through meditation, it is certainly possible that routine coloring could improve concentration over time. Research on other forms of meditation and mindfulness interventions has found it to improve concentration and control of attention (i.e., the ability to stay focused and not be distracted).

Is there any research about coloring being used in a helpful way by recovering alcoholics, drug addicts or by people who suffer from PTSD? If so, what does that research suggest or show?

At the moment, there is not any published research that I was able to locate specifically focused on coloring as an intervention for PTSD or substance problems. There is, however, a growing body of research about art therapy for the treatment of PTSD in both children and adults. Several of these studies have found different art therapy interventions to be helpful. Art therapy may also be utilized in the treatment of substance-related disorders. If coloring has its effects through a meditative state, then the growing body of research on meditation in the treatment of anxiety, depressive, and trauma- and stress-related suggests positive outcomes if coloring were to be studied in these individuals. Meditation interventions have been shown to increase self-confidence and decrease stress as well as anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Can you tell me what your students are interested in, as far as coloring goes?

Certainly! A couple of students with whom I work closely were talking the other day about how many news stories they saw about coloring over the semester break. They are both very research-minded so the conversation quickly turned questions of “is there evidence to support the buzz?” One in particular who is interested in end-of-life issues and aspires to a career as a hospice social worker is curious about how coloring compares to the expressive writing interventions that are often employed in therapeutic work for grief and trauma. The other student who was in this conversation is currently looking for previous research broadly related to coloring is going to get back in touch with me early next week.

Expressive interventions such as expressive writing, art, dance, play, and sandtray therapies can be very effective for individuals experiencing grief or traumatic stress, especially for individuals who have limited ability to talk about their feelings (ex: children) or reluctance to talk. There is a non-profit here in town, the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, that provides expressive these services and support groups to grieving children and families. Here’s the website: http://cbcst.org/who-we-are/our-friends/.

I've heard that coloring books have also been useful for patients in hospitals who don't have anything to do. Could coloring be beneficial to people in that circumstance?

It certainly is possible. Hospitalization can be an anxiety-inducing and saddening experience for a number of reasons. Health crises can be scary because they introduce uncertainty about the future. Also, people’s daily patterns and activities are disrupted during hospitalization. Additionally, people may feel isolated and bored when they are hospitalized. Given that research has previously shown art therapy to be help to people in hospitals, it is also possible that coloring could help people cope with stress through the mechanisms described above (meditation, engaging in a pleasurable activity). 


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