The word “therapy” is used loosely these days. We say things like, “I need a little shopping therapy,” or “being with family is all the therapy I need.” What we mean is that we enjoy these activities, and that they help us feel better. Strictly speaking, for something to be “therapeutic,” it must be scientifically proven to heal, or at the least to support and maintain, a desirable level of functioning. So, when we talk about adult coloring activities as being “art therapy,” it is important to know that we are primarily referring to the “it makes you feel better and it’s enjoyable” type of therapy. While there are a few studies that suggest that coloring mandalas can have positive impacts such as reducing anxiety, I know of no studies that examine the coloring of other designs.
It is also important to note that “art therapy” is a mental health profession, and that this term is not correctly used when referring to art activities that are enjoyable. Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which a client and therapist work together in a relationship committed to alleviating troublesome symptoms of anxiety, depression, and/or other diagnosed mental health problems. Art making by the client becomes a medium of communication that clarifies problem areas, relationship strengths and weaknesses, and increases self-awareness, self-acceptance, and ability to function. Art therapists prefer that their clients create their own personal, original art as self-expression, rather than working with structured designs such as coloring books. The art work then is clearly symbolic of the personal processes of the person creating it, and becomes rich material for exploration of meaning in the psychotherapy relationship between client and therapist. However, some art therapy clients are unable or unwilling to risk creating their own original work. For such clients, an art therapist might encourage coloring pre-formed designs to build client confidence so that they can produce their own art.
Coloring sheets are sometimes used in “activity groups” for people in educational and treatment settings: students with special needs, Psychiatric patients, addicts and alcoholics, or elderly dementia patients. This is not “therapy” but the effects are worthwhile, such as: exercising hand and eye coordination, making choices of colors, paying attention to a single point of focus, enjoying a sense of accomplishment when a project is completed, and providing a topic of conversation—or not. A woman recently shared with me that during a visit with a beloved, but somewhat irritating, family friend, she suggested coloring mandalas as an activity. First one, then another of the family members happily took up the activity, relieving the need to converse, and providing a quiet shared activity that all could take part in – “Even my husband!” she marveled.
I recommend coloring to those who are anxious or depressed who need help learning how to love, care for, and nurture themselves. Coloring books are easily obtained, not expensive, and provide an activity you can come back to again and again. Coloring is easily done at home, and it can also be taken along for boring moments in an airline terminal, a jury pool, or a hospital room. Coloring is good for those who want a creative activity, but are intimidated by blank canvases.
I hear from teachers that coloring is a favorite reward after completing assigned work, and coloring mandalas helps students calm, settle, and focus before taking important tests. I read recently about a nursing home in Texas where coloring was very popular with residents, and seemed to give residents a great deal of pleasure. (“Color Me Happy,” Ft. Worth, Texas Magazine, Sept. 2015) I am not aware of any research that confirms the usefulness of coloring for children and adults with special needs. However, I recommend offering coloring as an activity to anyone. If they like it, allow them to do more of it. The fact that they like coloring tells me that it is doing something good for them!
My art therapy specialty is creating and coloring mandalas (circular designs). The word “mandala” is Sanskrit for center, circumference, or essence. Mandalas are sacred in Eastern religions, and many other religions use mandalas in their places of worship in the form of stained glass windows, gilded domes, and intricate floor patterns of colored tile, marble, and semi-precious stone. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung adopted the word “mandala” for the circular drawings spontaneously created by his patients when in intensive psychotherapy with him. He observed that these mandalas helped anchor his patients during times of profound change that otherwise might have threatened their psychological stability. Jung attributed the appearance of mandalas in his patients’ artwork to a manifestation of a human impulse to strive for balance and wholeness.
Interestingly, all children spontaneously create mandalas between the ages of 2 and 4. This is the time when children are developing a psychological sense of self that is more than just the body that they are. They are learning that they can initiate action themselves, and produce an effect on their surroundings. They are growing out of the infant’s sense of being “at one” with everything, and learning their own limits, physically, psychologically, and socially: where they end, and others begin. The fact that mandala making is universal among children suggests that creating mandalas is part of the process of developing a sense of self.
It makes sense, then, that when adults are forced by life circumstances to make adjustments in who they think they are, creating mandalas is a natural response that supports health, healing, and wholeness. In my work as an art therapist I have observed that creating mandalas helps people stabilize and re-orient themselves amidst their life changes. It is for this reason that I am deeply committed to creating mandalas and leading others to experience for themselves the healing potential of mandalas. No doubt the buyers of coloring books have discovered this for themselves, and keep coming back for more mandalas to color!
I am as surprised as anyone by the popularity of adult coloring books. People tell me they find coloring relaxing, that they get satisfaction from completing a design with their own color selections. It is my hope that coloring books serve as a comfortable step toward exploring other forms of creative self-expression, such as drawing one’s own mandalas, painting, or clay work. Creativity is healing in the widest sense: it helps us reach beyond ourselves, and rehearse the making of choices that can result in a more satisfying life. This all seems good to me!
For someone who is starting their first coloring project, I would suggest:
- Pick designs you like.
- Use simple media (good quality colored pencils are my favorite).
- Have “try paper” at hand, so you can see what the color looks like before you color with it.
- Experiment with different ways of putting color on the paper: light, heavy, layers.
- Be gentle with yourself: set aside expectations for perfection (whatever that is!).
- You might enjoy using your coloring book like a journal: record the date(s) of your coloring, and jot down a few lines about what you are thinking and feeling.
- Revisit your work: you may not like the results of your work at first, but taking a look at it a day, a month, or a year later your opinion may be quite different.
- Coloring is about making choices, and the colors you choose express something important about you and what you are experiencing at the moment you do your coloring. To go deeper into the significance of your color choices, see my book: Creating Mandalas: For Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression (Shambhala, 2010) Chapters 3 and 4.
To someone on the fence about buying their first adult coloring book: Try it! You just might like it! A lot!