Coloring For Grownups Is Most Definitely A Thing

Coloring can be good for you.

In recent years, a growing number of adults have taken to revisiting popular childhood pastimes — skipping, hula hooping and double Dutch rope jumping among them. The latest activity to join this group: coloring, which grownups have been embracing for reasons ranging from stress relief to the joy of expression.

It started in Europe (specifically, France) about two years ago and recently hit the United States. Publishers are jumping on the bandwagon, and some titles, like "Secret Garden," have become international bestsellers, with the number of coloring books for adults growing by the month.

"The popularity is just really soaring," says Kimberly Montgomery, a coloring enthusiast from Lake Tahoe, California, who discovered it online a year ago. She finds it relaxing and colors a few times a week, spending up to several hours on a page. Her favorite pages to color have a positive message, like what's offered in "Creative Coloring Inspirations," published last year, whose floral designs feature uplifting words like "Today is going to be awesome."

"I get the same feeling coloring as when I'm out in nature," she says. "All of a sudden, my stress level decreases, and my sense of peace and serenity increases." 

"I can't draw, but I can color somebody else's drawing," says Shyla Jannusch. 
"I can't draw, but I can color somebody else's drawing," says Shyla Jannusch.  Courtesy: Shyla Jannusch

Facebook coloring groups have been proliferating, some boasting several thousand members, like Adult Coloring Group, Coloring Enthusiasts and Coloring for All!, whose founder, Shyla Jannusch, 43, took it up last year on a whim after coming across an adult coloring book in a Barnes & Noble, thinking it could be a nice, inexpensive way to unwind. Limited to 2,500 members, her group now has 700 people on its waiting list.

"Coloring allows you to just turn off the digital world for a while," she says, "but then we have that virtual community that you can go to for help, inspiration and positive feedback."

Jim Gogarty, a British illustrator, arrived at coloring through quite a different avenue — a spiritual awakening. It started 10 years ago when he had a powerful meditation session in which he saw vivid images of colorful circles. He felt a strong urge to draw them afterwards, and then just kept doing it, noticing that it brought on a meditative state. "I felt very relaxed and centered," he recounts in an email. "The same thing happened when I colored in my drawings."

Though he didn't know it at the time, the circles he was drawing and coloring in were mandalas, archetypical symbols that represent the universe in Hinduism and Buddhism. (Mandala means "circle" in Sanskrit). He was curious to see if others would enjoy coloring them, so he launched and shared his pages for people to try. It caught on, and Adams Media published a collection of them in "The Mandala Coloring Book" two years ago.

Courtesy Adams Media
Courtesy Adams Media

"I think when we color, we place all our focus on the process," he writes. "This shuts out everything else and you find yourself in the moment. Worries disappear and a sense of satisfaction can be achieved by creating a piece of art that is not too taxing."

This became clear not only from his own experience but also from the feedback he received from fans of his book . One man said coloring a mandala helped him get through a panic attack at the airport. An elderly woman with dementia was able to relax for the first time in years while coloring. A guy with PTSD used coloring to diminish anxiety and become more present during episodes.

Renee Van der Vennet, a practicing art therapist, is not surprised by this. In 2012, she co-authored a study, published in the journal Art Therapy, that found that people who are experiencing anxiety can greatly reduce it by coloring in mandalas (more so than a plaid design).

"There's something spiritual and relaxing about that kind of pattern that's inherent to our own spiritual well-being," says Dr. Van der Vennet, an associate professor of creative arts therapy at Nazareth College. Her approach to art therapy is informed by Carl Jung, who used mandalas therapeutically (and whom she credits as one of the founders of art therapy, a mental health profession that entails the use of art with a therapist's guidance). In the Jungian schema, mandalas tap into what he called our "collective unconscious," and the urge to create them can come during a spiritual awakening as a way for the psyche to process the experience.

Though Dr. Van der Vennet would encourage high functioning clients to draw their own mandalas for art therapy, she sees the coloring craze as a healthy step toward giving adults a chance to get in touch with their creativity and the healing it can bring about. "This is totally outside the box," she says of coloring, "and anybody who can push themselves outside their box is growing as a person."

And if it works to curb anxiety, all the better, as Shyla Jannusch, who has long suffered from anxiety, was happy to discover. Thanks to coloring, the hand tremors she had as a result of chronic anxiety have vanished. She credits the calming, anti-stress effects of coloring as well as the simple task of holding a pencil and sitting still. She believes many members in her Facebook group also suffer from ailments, "and they're using coloring to help them with their medical condition," she says.

To the uninitiated, however, who still see coloring as the preserve of small children, this avocation seems perplexing. After Jannusch appeared in a news segment in April, people she hadn't seen for a long time reached out to her.

One, she recalls, queried: "Coloring books? Really?"

"And I'm like, 'Yes! Coloring books!' she says. "Who would've thought?"

Cover image by Daniel Krieger