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!