The Benefits of Coloring for Stress Relief

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Coloring is relaxing and may reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. But the benefits of coloring are not the same as art therapy or creating art.

woman coloring

A surprising trend in relaxation products has been the explosion of coloring books for adults.

But is coloring just a fun activity?

Or does coloring deliver stress relief and other mental health benefits?

How does it compare to creating your own art or even to art therapy?

Benefits of Coloring: Stress Relief and Better Sleep

Coloring enthusiasts claim that coloring makes them feel calmer, mentally clearer, happier, and more relaxed.

When engaged in their hobby, “colorists,” as they call themselves, say that their worries temporarily fade away.

This is not surprising when you consider that all arts and crafts hobbies have the power to focus the mind similarly to meditation. (1)

A large study on knitters, for example, found that 80% of those with depression felt happier when they knitted. (2)

And, while coloring may have previously seemed childish, book publishers have cleverly marketed coloring as an acceptable adult activity.

There are few daily activities that can improve your mood, productivity, and ability to cope with stress as much as getting enough high-quality sleep — and coloring before you go to bed can help.

Coloring makes an excellent pre-bedtime ritual, and it’s healthier than common alternatives — answering emails, binge-watching favorite shows, catching up on social media, or reading on an e-reader.

Unfortunately, exposure to the blue light emitted by your electronic devices disrupts your circadian rhythm and contributes to insomnia. (3)

The use of electronics in the evening also significantly reduces the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. (4)

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Coloring and Stress Relief: What the Research Shows

There hasn’t been much research yet on the benefits of coloring.

But most of the research that has been done has used a particular type of design called a mandala.

Mandalas are circular designs with concentric shapes that have a universal spiritual significance.

painting a mandala
Painting a mandala.

They originated in India and mean “sacred circles” in Sanskrit. (5)

Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques, and Christian cathedrals all incorporate mandalas into their architecture.

Renowned psychologist Carl Jung had his patients coloring mandalas 100 years ago as a tool for relaxation and self-discovery.

The study Can Coloring Mandalas Reduce Anxiety? concluded that coloring a complex geometric pattern induced a meditative state beneficial for those with anxiety.

Research conducted on college students found that coloring in patterns significantly reduced signs of stress and depression. (6)

A study on patients with post-traumatic stress disorder found that those who spent time coloring mandalas daily showed a decrease in symptoms, while those who simply drew did not. (7)

Another study found that while coloring a mandala did reduce anxiety symptoms, it did not induce a meditative state of mindfulness. (8)

If you are interested in coloring mandalas, you can use existing templates or you can easily create your own.

Art Is Fun has an easy step-by-step lesson on creating your own mandalas from scratch.

All you need is a pencil, ruler, and paper.

Why Coloring Is Popular in Stressed-Out France

France has long been considered the epicenter of douceur de vivre, “the sweet life.”

So it’s surprising perhaps that the French have become one of the most stressed-out societies on earth.

France has the highest lifetime rate of major depression. (9)

Psychiatric services are overwhelmed, while one-third of French adults take a psychoactive medication. (10, 11)

Workplace suicides are not uncommon and have even resulted in lawsuits against major employers. (12)

And now, more and more people in France are turning, not to red wine, but to coloring to relieve their stress.

Browse through Amazon.com and you’ll find that coloring books for adults are frequently bestsellers.

The first blockbuster adult coloring book was Art-Thérapie: 100 Coloriages Anti-Stress which sold 3.5 million copies. (13)

And the French have made coloring books trés chic.

The fashion empires of Yves Saint Laurent and Hermès have released their own coloring books.

But the price for some of these designer coloring books — $160 for Hermès — might stress you out!

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Does Coloring Qualify as Art Therapy?

Coloring might be fun and relaxing, but can it bestow the same benefits as art therapy?

Art therapy uses the process of creating art, facilitated by an art therapist, to improve a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Many art therapists including Sarah Deaver, president of the American Art Therapy Association, have been supportive of the coloring movement. (14)

Some therapists believe that coloring provides the added benefit of taking us back to the simpler times of our childhood.

There’s some hope that coloring can act as a “gateway activity” to reach people who could benefit from art therapy.

And there’s evidence that this could be the case.

Coloring, for example, has been used to gently ease combat veterans suffering from PTSD into art therapy. (15)

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Art Therapists Against Coloring

Art therapists are health care professionals with backgrounds in both art and psychology or counseling.

They usually have a master’s degree and must complete hundreds of supervised hours working with clients before they get their degree.

So, as you can imagine, not all art therapists are sold on the idea that you can simply color your way to better mental health.

In an interview in The New Yorker, Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, questions whether adults who immerse themselves in childlike activities like coloring are regressing into safe patterns in order to avoid reality.

She finds an unsettling trend of people gravitating toward activities that require minimal effort.

Marygrace Berberian, program coordinator for the graduate art therapy program at New York University, points out that coloring on your own bypasses an important part of art therapy — the relationship one builds with a trusted therapist. (16)

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, is a leading international art therapy expert and no fan of the coloring craze either.

On Psychology Today, Dr. Malchiodi states:

“The motion of crayon or pencil moving back and forth within premade boundaries is perceived as a form of containment, mastery and mind-numbing escape from the here-and-now.”

She cites numerous proven benefits of creating art, including stress reduction, improved cognitive abilities, increased attention span, and general enhancement in quality of life.

But she firmly contends that coloring is not creative expression, art therapy, or a mindful meditation — it’s just coloring.

So any marketing claims that coloring books are “art therapy” are misleading and should be taken with a grain of salt.

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What You Need to Start Coloring 

So, while it’s pretty clear that coloring is no replacement for art therapy, that does not mean that it’s not a relaxing, enjoyable way to turn off your electronics and unwind.

A great thing about coloring is that, unlike some hobbies, there is a low barrier to entry.

You can do it anywhere and all you need is a design and some colored pencils.

You can start by downloading and printing images for free at websites such as Super Coloring.

They have thousands of free images in just about any category you can imagine.

My favorites are their famous paintings which range from Johannes Vermeer to Andy Warhol.

When you are ready to buy your first coloring book, here are some tips.

Tips on Buying Your First Coloring Book

If you buy online from a site like Amazon.com, read the reviews carefully, especially the negative ones.

Common complaints include things you might not have considered such as it doesn’t lay flat, the pages are surprisingly small, images are on both sides of the page, and colors bleed through.

Oddly, some books have the pages pre-colored (which seems to defeat the purpose of coloring).

There are coloring books for an amazing array of interests — fashion, art masterpieces, dragons, and the world’s most beloved cities.

Even though women buy most coloring books, there are those with more traditionally masculine themes like beer drinking, fishing, and classic cars.

Cleverpedia.com has compiled a comprehensive list of 75 adult coloring books classified by genre; there’s truly something for every taste. 

Brain-smart tip: Do not use Sharpies or similar markers for coloring. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, they contain volatile solvents that can cause serious side effects, including brain damage. Crayons or colored pencils are a much safer choice.

Coloring for Stress Relief Apps

Some people prone to anxiety may find coloring stressful, rather than relaxing, since they worry they will mess up.

If committing to paper stresses you out, start with digital coloring.

Stress Relief Coloring for Adults is an app that lets you fill in and change colors on over 150 templates with a click.

You can download it for free for either iOS or Android.

Once you experience some degree of success, you might find yourself ready to commit to paper.

Coloring Can Be a Social Activity

Coloring has even become a social activity, a modern equivalent of a quilting bee.

You can share your works, get tips, and find templates to color on one of the many Facebook coloring groups.

These are great places to see what others are doing and to share and showcase your own work.

Most coloring groups have stopped meeting since COVID-19, but you can still find coloring groups that meet virtually on Meetup.com.

Dover Publications, a leader in adult coloring books since 1970, has declared August 2nd “National Coloring Book Day.”

Visit ColoringBookDay.com for information on coloring activities, plus coloring pages you can download for free.

Coloring for Stress Relief: Take the Next Step

Coloring is no longer an activity just for kids.

It has become a socially acceptable activity for adults as well.

Coloring is a fun way to relieve stress and can provide a welcome break from electronic devices.

There hasn’t been much research on the mental health benefits of coloring.

But a few studies indicate that coloring shows promise for treating stress, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, especially when intricate patterns known as mandalas are used.

But for now, the professional consensus is that coloring is not a substitute for art therapy and that coloring may not provide the same mental health benefits as creating art.

READ NEXT: The Mental Health Benefits of Art Are for Everyone