Can you color your way to stress-free living?

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The trend in coloring books for grown-ups exploded seemingly overnight. The first one I ever saw was in a bookstore. I will admit that while I was intrigued with that first one, I laughed at the idea of adults coloring. Now, not only are they in seemingly EVERY bookstore, but also grocery stores and even the occasional gas station. Their claim? They will reduce your stress. I am no longer laughing.

And, Americans are stressed. According to the American Psychological Association's "Stress in America" survey, more than 40 percent of adults in the U.S. say their stress level has increased over the past five years. Younger adults report higher stress levels compared to older generations. And greater proportions of adults are experiencing "extreme" stress compared to ever before. The biggest stressor is typically reported as money concerns, but the list of reasons why we are stressed is never ending.

We're paying for that stress with our health. Physically, stress actually changes our DNA. Telomeres, little "caps" at the end of each chromosome (our genetic material) meant to help protect our genes, begin to shrink when we're stressed. This has been linked to cancer, premature aging and other health concerns. (The good news is that this is reversible and telomeres can lengthen with a healthy lifestyle!) Stress has been associated with adverse health events in nearly every organ of the body, including gastrointestinal issues and cardiac disease.

Historically, our stress management techniques haven't been healthy. Because of stress, individuals report watching more TV, spending more time on their computers or smartphones, drinking, smoking, eating and sleeping more.

Books on how to reduce stress are being published in record numbers, showing how we are all reaching for a solution. Coloring books are the newest approach. They are supposed to work by enhancing our mindfulness. Mindfulness is about paying attention to something on purpose. When I go for a walk outside, my mind easily wanders. I think about my grocery list, the things I need to do at work, where I have to drive my kids that evening, and so on. My mind wanders. I should be thinking about how the air feels on my face, listening to the birds and observing how nice my neighbor's flowers look. Dr. Amit Sood, a professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic, author of books about stress and developer of the SMART program (Stress Management And Resiliency Training), says that mind wandering is the "default" mode of our brain. This is how we usually operate—thinking about multiple things at one time. "Focused mode" is undistracted presence or, essentially, mindfulness. Focused mode can be difficult to achieve, and it takes practice. Lots and lots of practice.

If you're skeptical that mindfulness actually works, you can do a simple exercise. Look at a plant leaf. Notice the shape, if you see any veins in the leaf, the colors (there are usually different shades in different places of the leaf), and any abnormal marks. Really LOOK at the leaf and its characteristics for a minute and try not to think about anything else. When you are done, notice how you feel. Is your heart rate a little lower? Are you breathing a bit slower? Do you feel mentally "lighter"? That's mindfulness in action. It's about being aware of what you are doing and what's around you.

Coloring for adults isn't a brand new concept. It's been used with elderly adults afflicted in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, demonstrating in the research an improved quality of life. Those with moderate symptoms have also been shown to have a decrease in agitation. When I was a nursing assistant in a long-term care facility 25 years ago, paper and crayons were regularly stocked for our confused patients. Having them color seemed to slow down their chaotic brain signals and gave them a chance to re-orient themselves.

Though I resisted for quite a while, I've since tried the coloring books. I turned to a friend that was into them. REALLY into them. She sent me a one page email discussing what kind of books are out there, what Facebook sites I should be on and artists I should follow on Twitter. She then sent me ANOTHER one page email about the different coloring pencils and pens, along with her recommendations. This stressed me out before I had even started! Once I did start coloring, I was overly concerned about what colors I should use and where. I constantly questioned my creative abilities and couldn't get into just doing it. It may not work for me, but I'd like to keep trying.

My recommendations? It never hurts to try it. There are lots of coloring book options out there. Overall, however, I encourage you to find whatever it is that may help you be mindful. Maybe it's gardening, reading or walking outside. Perhaps it's playing a musical instrument. Coloring is just one tool in the box.

Whether you are a first-time grown-up colorist or have been involved with it for a while, I would love to see your work! Email me a picture of your creations, or send it to me via Facebook or Twitter! For those of you actively involved with it, those who are just entering the coloring book world may like to hear your recommendations for books, coloring pencils/pens, etc. Please comment below with your experiences!

La Donna McGohan

La Donna McGohan

La Donna McGohan, Luther College associate professor of nursing, is the head of the nursing department as well as a '95 graduate of the school. She completed her master's degrees in Nursing Education and Nursing Administration at Winona State University, and her Doctorate of Nursing Practice at Minnesota State University, Mankato. LaDonna's nursing interests are primarily in how religions influence the health care practices of their members.

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  • March 21 2016 at 5:38 pm
    Tabita Green

    Thank you for bringing attention to the health benefits of mindfulness! I think the popularity of the adult coloring books definitely reflect our stress levels and maybe also a desire to do something with our hands. I turned to knitting this winter after my mother (an avid knitter) visited for a few weeks. I immediately noticed the meditative qualities of the practice and found myself looking forward to my next opportunity to knit. I later learned from the radio show "To the best of our knowledge" that knitting is used therapeutically, not just for stress, but also for pain. It made sense, since mindfulness was introduced into the mainstream in this country to help patients with chronic pain. I love all the ways we're discovering how to be in this world that makes life just a little bit better.

    P.S. Now I know what I'm doing tonight! Time to get that coloring book out. :)

  • March 22 2016 at 10:20 am
    Ellen Modersohn
    I've never before identified it as mindfulness, but have achieved the same effects from chopping vegetables for a stir-fry dinner (avoiding the electric chopper), hand quilting, mowing the lawn, paddling a kayak, painting a wall, and now, yes, coloring in my typography-themed coloring book when I'm not inclined to do "real" work. Colored pencils work just fine.
  • March 22 2016 at 11:22 am
    Mary Ellen Cordes
    Ok , I like the coloring but now I am stressed out about what to do with all of these pictures. Do I put them up with the kids atrwork? Will we stress the recycling system by adding to the volume? do I save them in a box under the bed for the kids to have to deal with when I die? I have to buy boxes of colored pencils and crayons since I tend to like certain colors and they get used up. What to do with my unused colors? Is there a group I can trade them with so they don't go to waste? It all sends me in the mindful direction of fealing with clutter and the pact environment. At be not the right activity for me!
  • March 22 2016 at 11:37 am
    Andrea Eickhoff
    Great article LaDonna! I've been coloring for years as a way to be creative and relax. I prefer to color traditional mandalas with repeating designs using 3-5 colors. Less choices helps to decrease my stress over what color to choose. My kids love to color too! If you came to our home right now you could find 2-3 coloring projects going at various stages by our family.
  • March 22 2016 at 11:39 am
    Julie Shockey Trytten, blog administrator
    Thanks for the conversation! Mary Ellen, I know MANY teachers who would love to get a surprise package of your unused (or gently used) colors!! Could you donate them to a local school, preschool or daycare?
  • March 22 2016 at 2:03 pm
    La Donna McGohan

    I appreciate the comments to far! Tabita Green - I can understand the knitting aspect. While I'm a REALLY beginning knitter, there's a repetitiveness about what I'm doing that's soothing. I hadn't heard about knitting relieving pain, and was glad to hear that. It makes sense, however, as mindfulness in general has been shown in the literature to do just that. Ellen Modersohn - You are showing exactly the idea that many things can bring on mindfulness! I haven't heard how chopping vegetables can do that, but I will put aside the electric chopper next time and try your method! Mary Ellen Cordes - Your mind thinks like mine does! I still haven't finished my first project because it stressed me out! I'm thinking coloring just isn't for me. But, I'm glad it works for others out there! Andrea Eickhoff - I LOVE seeing kids color! They aren't concerned about choosing the "right" colors or staying in the lines. Usually, kids pay no attention to the rules we end up creating ourselves about what's "right" and "wrong" to do when coloring. I need to learn how to embrace their sense of freedom with creativity. I'm going to have to try your method of limiting colors. My daughter suggested that to me after I had already started. My ambitions were higher than my abilities!

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