Why I turned to the colouring-in cure

Adult colouring-in books are enjoying phenomenal popularity
Adult colouring-in books are enjoying phenomenal popularity

Sales of adult colouring-in books promising reduced stress are topping Amazon’s bestseller lists. JOANNE SAVAGE tries some art therapy

Colouring-in books for adults accounted for Amazon’s top five non-fiction bestselling products at the beginning of the summer. Six of Brazil’s top 10 non-fiction list is filled with adult colouring-in books while last year in France, the combined colouring-in industry sold 3.5m books.

You need only look in book shops to find stacks of colouring tomes with delightful becalming titles: the Art Therapy Colouring book, Calming Art Therapy, Colour Therapy, Can’t Sleep Colouring. Most are full of eye-wateringly difficult patterns from mandalas to complex renderings of landscapes, celebrities and, yes, even a Kate Middleton themed version where you can colour in the glowing duchess with the impossibly perfect hair in a variety of locations in massively well co-ordinated outfits.

You can colour in Japanese-themed manga characters, doodlings with a Scandinavian folk theme, vistas of the Moulin Rouge, angels suspended in the skies, the dreamy Ryan Gosling and a host of other stars with numerous artists and designers creating their own adult colouring in offerings for a now burgeoning market that is testament to the anxiety tormenting today’s world.

Colouring your way back to calm

Being no stranger to stress myself, with anxiety levels that can easily spiral out of control, I decided to put the copious glasses of pinot noir, ranting to relatives and friends until the veins bulge in my forehead and harassing my GP for prescriptions of valium on hold, to instead try colouring-in as a way to tune into a more naturally-induced tranquil state. (I say ‘more tranquil’ because, I am sadly far, far too hyperactively wired to ever be mistaken for a Buddhist monk and it doesn’t matter how many times I sit in the lotus position chanting ‘Namaste’ because some of us are just annoying stressy people).

As a natural born sceptic and inveterate pessimist I thought this would be just another load of new age guff designed to leech money from the pockets of the highly strung, the hopelessly neurotic, the terminally bored and the fatally gullible. But I was wrong - I am gobsmacked to affirm that there is something in this.

After a week of evenings spent colouring in a series of dizzyingly complex mandalas with all the Crayola pencils and felt tips I could lay my hands on (note - do not colour in in coffee shops or on trains as you are liable to get funny looks), I found that what this provides is a powerful way of distracting the mind from the rolling spiel of thoughts and worries that fuel anxiety and stress.

When your whole mind is concentrated on simply choosing which colours to use and where, always being careful not to go over the lines and to keep it all pretty and just-so, it acts as a powerful obstruction to negative thoughts and moods, centring the brain’s focus on what is happening in the moment; the only priority for the duration of your colouring in session is following the patterns in front of you and choosing colours.

Practising mindfulness with crayons

Many of these sophisticated colouring books promise greater mindfulness on their covers and mindfulness is what you might describe as the secular age’s version of spirituality.

Mindfulness (excuse me if I come over all Deepak Chopra here) is about centring the self in the present moment and creating a distance between you and your thoughts by concentrating on your breathing, or the sensation of your feet on the floor, or in this case simply channelling all focus on crayon on paper.

Practising mindfulness is, say practitioners, a way of becoming the master rather than the slave of your mind and thoughts.

Colouring in is the artistic equivalent of a diazepam - you put everything stressing you out to one side and substitute that for a momentary return to the childish joy of just creating something pretty with no agenda or imperative.

I am profoundly hooked and have cancelled all forthcoming social events to stay in with my colouring books. Sad, yes, but also a route to improved sanity, reduced anxiety levels and perhaps one more step on the path to enlightenment/avoiding incarceration in the attic.

It’s not the solution to life’s many problems by any means, but doodling and colouring your way through stress or anxiety is one non-destructive way to catharsis and renewed calm.

I went for a book filled with mandalas. ‘Mandalas’ (from the Sanskrit word for ‘circle’) are intricate patterns within a circular border that were used in an ancient form of meditative art that draws your eye towards their centre. It is believed that colouring them in relaxes the mind, body and spirit.

Colouring in is good for you: What the experts say

But don’t just take my word for it.

Doctor Nigel Robb is a researcher at the school of psychology at Queen’s University Belfast with an interest in how play and creative activity can improve the brain’s functionality.

Doctor Robb develops video games to improve executive function control for children with intellectual disabilities and in the course of his research has found that creativity or play has a depression and anxiety-busting impact for adults as much as for children.

He said: “Research shows that, for example, cancer patients who regularly painted displayed lower rates of depression than those patients who did not engage in this kind of activity.

“Play therapy has been used to reduce anxiety in people who have experienced traumatic or stressful events, and art therapy has been associated with increased self-esteem and general health, as well as reduced anxiety and depression.”

Numerous online groups dedicated to adult colouring have sprung up on Facebook and on Twitter, while blogging about colouring from a purely recreational point of view and from a mental health perspective is also much in evidence.

Speaking at a mental health workshop in 2009, author, speaker and communication expert Mark Robert Waldman, quoted in Psychologies Magazine, explained that active meditation focuses attention on simple tasks that require repetitive motion. Concentrating this way replaces negative thoughts and creates a state of tranquillity. Colouring is a gentle occupation and the simple repetitive actions involved focus the brain in the present blocking out intrusive and bothersome thoughts.

More broadly, a recent study from San Francisco State University has shown that people who partake in creative activities outside of work deal with stress better and achieve enhanced performance in the work place too.

And it’s not just colouring in that is enjoying a rebirth, think of the phenomenal explosion of interest in creative endeavours such as knitting and upcycling in these cash-strapped times.

All this creative endeavour is a positive thing for our collective mental health and wellbeing.

Some books you might like to try to get you started include: The Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt & Colouring Book by Johanna Basford (Laurence King, £6.97); Colour Yourself Calm: A Mindfulness Colouring Book by Tiddy Rowan (Quadrille, £9.99; Animal Kingdom: A Colouring Book Adventure by Mille Marotta (Batsford, £9.99) featuring beautiful illustrations of fish, birds, trees and plants; and Pretty Patterns: Creative Colouring For Grown-Ups (Michael O’Mara Books, £9.99) offers 128 pages of flowers, birds, butterflies, and geometric patterns.