Stress plays a major factor in the health and wellness of today’s society and few are more familiar with stress. This sample essay by an Ultius writer explores art therapy techniques such as adult coloring have proven effective when combating stress.
The phenomenon of adult coloring
Stress is a killer, but playing with coloring is cooler. Millions of adults have found the release of relaxation and a strange sense of satisfaction in coloring in black and white designs with colors. Whether it is crayons, colored pencils, markers, or dare you, oil pastels, adults are spending hundreds of hours crouched over coloring books with serene smiles on their faces. Coming to be known as “The Peter Pan Market” a new flowering of the inner child has enabled many adults to dispense with therapy, throw out their anti-depressants, and playfully remember what it was like to be a child.
The phenomenon of adult coloring took off in 2011 when the British publishing house, Laurence King, asked Scottish artist Johanna Basford to create a children’s coloring book. Basford specializes in hand drawn black and white commercial illustrations, and she came back with the suggestion that she create a coloring book for adults. This idea had been growing with Basford for years, as her fans delightfully shared their love of coloring in her drawings. This brave innovation and willingness to think outside the lines led to the creation of Secret Garden: An inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book which has since sold nearly two million copies (Raphel 1).
The Secret Garden
While coloring books for adults had been around for some time, the intricate and sophisticated illustrations Basford brought to the classic literary work Secret Garden theme was enough to draw in adults who may have been left cold by simpler designs. Just in time to revitalize the lagging publishing industry, the adult coloring phenomenon has enthused publishers and illustrators alike. Lesley O’Mara, managing director of a British publishing house relates:
“We’ve never seen a phenomenon like it in our thirty years of publishing. We are on our fifteenth reprint of some of our titles. Just can’t keep them in print fast enough” (Raphel 1).
This represents a fundamental need for adults that has been going unfulfilled for some time, the desire for play.
The American Journal of Play
Playtime has been shown to be one of the most effective ways of learning, staying healthy, and making pesky existential questions about the nature of existence irrelevant. Beyond simple experience, this truth has been vetted in the American Journal of Play. Such fundamental human needs cannot be fulfilled by the rat race of survival amidst the sweltering stress of contemporary culture, and the return to play may offer a new lease on life for many adults about to be pushed beyond the breaking point. Commentators admit,
The trend has been fuelled to some degree by social media—colorists post their elaborate creations on Facebook and Pinterest, garnering fans and offering pro tips on things like Prismacolor versus gel pens, or how to make that tricky owl in the corner pop—and by marketing that associates them with such therapeutic ends as anxiety- and stress-reduction. (Raphel 1)
The Peter Pan Market
However, no phenomenon comes to be in a vacuum, and it is just now through the playful absurdity of the adult coloring movement that the full spectrum of The Peter Pan Market has been identified.
While it may seem like a mental illness requiring psychiatric treatment, the rebellious desire never to grow up has fueled masses of pastimes and products which enable staying young in heart and mind, such as:
- Adult summer camps.
- Adult Preschool
- Adults reading children’s books
- Dairy keeping (journaling)
- Adults dressing like children
Most likely, there are many more practices and aspects of The Peter Pan Market which have yet to come to light, but the reality is that many adults find satisfaction in returning to a state of mind much simpler than the one demanded by today’s fast-paced culture.
What adult coloring is not
The fine line between play and delusion is a very fine line indeed, and while a practice may be healthy as long as it is kept in a logical perspective, the same practice may be delusional and damaging when taken to extremes by someone suffering from a mental illness. The joys of crafting are well known, and many children and adults engage in it whether for play or for a living.
It is true that “Coloring is a great way for non-artists to experience the absorption and creativity of drawing without having to make the artistic decisions…It’s all the fun without any of the angst of creating art” (Sanders 1).
However, it is important for some to keep in mind that adult coloring is not art, nor is it art therapy, it is simply coloring.
What makes art different from craft is in part the angst which goes into creating it. Art is not a simple rehashing of a tested and true method for creating a look or a feel, art is the very personal investigation of meaning through the creation of new forms and perspectives which has the power to transform how one sees and lives their life.
It is dangerous to imbue craft with the power of art lest delusions begin flowering rather than fun. On guard against easy delusions, Cathy Malchiodi, PhD emphasizes:
While completing a coloring page is undeniably a “feel-good” experience for many, it is obviously a far different experience from authentic creative expression. The benefits of actual art making (using one’s hands to create from imagination) are many and are well-documented, including not only relaxation via stress hormone reduction, but also increased cognitive abilities and attention span, decreases in pain and fatigue perception, improved self-awareness and enhanced sense of quality of life. (Malchiodi 1)
While the stress reduction of coloring is very real it must not be elevated to the rank of art, lest real artists be degraded through the association. There is a huge difference between creation and mimicry.
Also, some claim adult coloring is not cognitive therapy at all. As much of a bummer as that statement may be, unless the authentic meaning of words and terms is protected anything can mean anything and the point of communication and valuation is lost.
As doctor Malchiodi clarifies, art therapy is not only based in creative visual expression, it is rooted within a relationship. It is the right-hemisphere-to-right-hemisphere, attuned, sensory-based, embodied and reflexive convergence aspects of the art therapy relationship that support art’s reparative powers” (Malchiodi 1).
The fact that adult coloring could so easily be confused as art therapy reveals that therapy itself has suffered a degradation much like artists would if it was considered art. Apparently, due to lack of reparative results therapy is now more of an action than something which enables healing. Real and effective art therapy repairs broken minds and hearts through overcoming the challenges which are inherent in creation.
However, there is disagreement about whether or not adult coloring is art therapy.
The American Art Therapy Association emphasizes that art therapy is the process of making and creating in order to “explore feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem” (Fitzpatrick 1).
It is difficult to make a claim when many experts in the field cannot come to consensus, and in the end it is up to the individual to decide what art therapy, and therapy in general means to them.
What adult coloring is
While some may be discouraged by the limitations of using words specifically, understanding the scope of a thing is a healthy way to make the most of it. Adult coloring is helping people come into the present moment, deal with stress and addiction, and begin to question some of the beliefs and habits which so often draw them out of it. For example, adult colorer and neuroscientist, Jordan Gaines Lewis admits,
When I color, I’m not actually accomplishing anything productive; I may spend several meticulous hours on a single picture before simply shoving the book back onto my shelf. And then what am I supposed to do with it — tape it up on my fridge? But here’s a wild thought: Not everything we do must be in pursuit of productivity. (Lewis 1)
Currently, the world is engulfed in unlimited expansion capitalism which is fueled by extreme competitiveness, valuation of material goods over emotional goods, and the frantic pursuit of some type of security.
However, security cannot be found through any material thing or any external relationship, try as people might. The misguided search for this illusive security fuels consumerism, the mania of “reality” TV, and the fear of the other which promotes so much violence between people. Real security can only be found through self-love and self-awareness and this can only be cultivated and enjoyed in the present moment. Any practice which requires concentration helps pull individuals into the present, and adult coloring is just the latest way people have rediscovered this simple fact.
Daily life is made up of a plethora of choices both huge and small. With how fast-paced, challenging, and exhausting life is, more and more people are suffering the physical effects of stress which inhibit the joy of living and distance one from oneself. Primary research has shown that adult coloring can help people feel empowered by the range of choices involved in coloring and that this process easing strain on the brain. As psychologist Dr. Stan Rodeski emphasizes,
The reasons why sometimes the brain doesn’t switch gears by itself when it should are not yet fully understood. However, we have made significant advances in helping the brain to “switch gears.” This book is designed to help you do just that. Brain studies show us that when under pressure we can “manually” change ‘gears’. By focusing on the task of ” coloring between the lines” we can change our “brainwaves” from being in a continual state of “BETA” (pressured and stresses) to a more relaxed state of “ALPHA.” (Littlegreymatters 1)
This relaxed state of ALPHA is not always achieved through mindlessly watching television since the right brain finds relaxation in meaningful action (Song 1).
The demands of the day are so often meticulously left brained, and over-stimulatingly imbalanced. Adult coloring is one of many ways to unwind, explore the infinite possibilities of limitations, and to bring one’s attention to the present moment gently. The strange joy of play can be worked into the workaday life with creativity that assists greater productivity, and it reveals there is no need to justify the desire to engage in meaningless activity in a world whose quest for meaning can be daunting.
Beck, Julie. “The Zen of adult coloring books.” The Atlantic, 4 Nov. 2015. Web. Viewed at: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/11/sorry-benedict-cumberbatch-your-head-is-fine/414010/
Fitzpatrick, Kelly. “Why adult coloring books are good for you.” CNN, Jan. 2016. Web. Viewed at: http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/06/health/adult-coloring-books-popularity-mental-health/
Lewis, Jordan Gaines. “A Neuroscientist patiently explains the allure of the adult coloring book.” NY Mag, 10 Jan. 2016. Web. Viewed at: http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/01/neuroscientist-explains-adult-coloring-books.html
Littlegreymatters. “Colour me happy: Why coluring in books help stress.” Web. Viewed at: https://littlegreymatters.com/2015/07/21/colour-me-happy-why-colouring-in-books-help-stress/
Malchiodi, Cathy. “Are you having a relationship with an adult coloring book?” Psychology Today, 30 June, 2015. Web. Viewed at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/arts-and-health/201506/are-you-having-relationship-adult-coloring-book
Raphel, Andrienne. “Why adults are buying coloring books (for themselves).” The New Yorker, 12 July 2015. Web. Viewed at: http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-adults-are-buying-coloring-books-for-themselves
Song, Daria. “5 Reasons to give in to the adult coloring book trend.” Mindbodygreen.com, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. Viewed at: http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-22045/5-reasons-to-give-in-to-the-adult-coloring-book-trend.html