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Why Coloring Can’t Calm You Down

The hottest trend in publishing is coloring books, with its promise of wellness, mindfulness, and everything healthy, up to and including, Nirvana for your soul. Indeed, earlier this year, five of Amazon’s top 15 best selling books were coloring books.

Since 2013, when Johanna Basford released her “Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book,” and later “Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest and Coloring Book”, and more recently, “Lost Ocean: An Inky Adventure and Coloring Book”, adults have found yet a new way to reduce stress and anxiety, eliminate negative thoughts, meditate, activate the analytic and creative parts of their brains, rediscover themselves and reconnect with their “inner child.”

Coloring-adult-rosacesMuch of the original thinking on the value of coloring goes back to the first half of the 20th century when psychiatrist Carl Jung began studying the benefits of coloring Mandalas. Mandalas are symmetrical patterns with geometric shapes and concentric circles in them. It is believed that coloring these recurring patterns increases attention and fuels mindful meditation. A number of  studies, including those carried out at John Hopkins University, those published in Yoga Journal, and those pioneered by neuroscience investigators such as Stan Rodski (Ph.D.) – who is now also the author of a line of his own colouring books – all point in the same direction: when combined with breathing techniques, meditation and mindfulness, coloring has the potential to improve stress management outcomes, center our lives, give the amygdala a rest, and feel like a kid once again. 

So I gave it a try. I ordered a few of the thousands of adult coloring books that are out there, bought a couple of more at my local bookstore, filled up on crayons and markers, and set the time aside to engage in the latest promise of health. But it did not work. No, not even close.

To be completely transparent, when I was a youngster growing up in Newark (NJ) in the 50s and 60s, I did not enjoy coloring. I surely did not enjoy finger painting, cutting designs with scissors, and come to think of it, I didn’t really enjoy much of anything in my art classes. Yes, we had art classes back then. I was one of those kids who only liked to color in the lines, and when I didn’t, I thought my production was not very good. This begins to explain why coloring can’t calm me down.

Did I use the word “thought”? Hmmm. I just did. I’ll offer a quick disclaimer here. No, I’m not OCD, and long ago gave up the myth of perfectionism. But when I read Drena Fagan’s, (an art therapist and adjunct instructor at New York University’s Steinhardt College) remarks in a Gaurdian.com interview saying that coloring “can be mindful or mindless, depending on how one approaches it,” it confirmed what I already suspected.

Here’s why coloring books don’t work

You see, we make a potentially very unhealthy error when we naively and blindly leap on the latest snake oil to cure what pains us. We hurt ourselves, and potentially others, by believing it’s the coloring book, or the diet, or the exercise or the latest self-help book, or the walk in nature, or a host of many other wonderful experiences that can enhance life and advance optimal health. It’s not. I’ll explain. The link is what you think. It’s ALL in your head, not in the activity.

Have you ever coached someone to, let’s say, do some meditation? You spend significant time creatively teaching how to do it, discuss the science and the many known benefits, review it all to be sure the individual understands the techniques and benefits, only to find later s/he not only did not meditate at all, but reported to other family members s/he hates it. Sounds familiar? But meditation has so many benefits! It is backed by so much science? It works!

Not so fast. It could work, “…depending on how one approaches it.” Coloring books, like so many other books, don’t calm you down UNLESS you think there’s value, think it will be of help to you, and you think it’s something you enjoy. Otherwise it’s only paper. Despite all of the benefits we know exercise and healthy eating bring, UNLESS an individual is motivated = thinks correctly about doing it, it won’t ever happen and can’t work – for that individual due to his/her mindset. But exercise has been proven, scientifically, to work! Not necessarily.

Just like any positive lifestyle habit change, the first thing that must be engaged is thinking. The individual who thinks of coloring as a challenge, who makes him/herself upset about “wasting time,” or believes erroneously “I can’t do that well,” or irrationally thinks, “There’s a right way and wrong way and it’s terrible if I don’t do it right,” or compares and despairs, “Her/his Mandala is nicer than mine,” will not only not find calm, but will increase his/her stress, in spite of the fact that science says coloring is so beneficial to so many ailments!

I recently suggested coloring to a couple in significant distress. She is a cancer patient who’s been bed-ridden for months. She said, “Coloring? Coloring makes me sick!” Now of course, coloring doesn’t make her sick. What she thinks of coloring upsets her. The problem is never the problem. What one thinks of the problem is the problem.

It’s the same with coloring books for adults. It’s not the coloring book, the markers or the crayons. A coloring book won’t calm you down unless you are open to seeing it do so. Then the science tells us just how that happens. But it’s the thinking about the coloring activity, the mindset that allows the activity to bring the known benefits that accounts for the positive -or negative – impact. Without the right mindset, positive acceptance, thinking it’s an enjoyable activity, thinking in an open way about the activity, it’s just a piece of paper and a crayon lying on a table.

Until we think right, all of the finest tools are just tools sitting in the tool shed. We won’t change a habit applying the finest theory of habit change, unless we think with the right attitude about that change. It’s the same with exercise equipment. Without thinking it’s something that one can do, without thinking there is value, without thinking positively about the benefits, it’s just a treadmill or a set of weights.

Once, while coaching an individual in the gym, we walked by a barbell with 100 pounds, maybe 150 pounds, on it. The client said, “Boy that freaks me out.” I asked him how a barbell, regardless of the weight on the bar, can “freak him out.” He of course said, “I just think I’d kill myself or get seriously hurt if I lifted that.” I told him that if I thought that, I might freak myself out as well. It’s not the inanimate barbell that has the power to freak someone out. But a simple thought, “I’d kill myself or get seriously hurt if I lifted that,” surely can create a great deal of angst.

Just remember…”The link is what you think.” It’s ALL in your head. Mindset trumps science!

Anyone interested in buying some not so used coloring books and crayons?

About Dr. Michael R. Mantell

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D. is a behavior transformation and leadership coach, speaker, author and an accomplishment mentor inspiring personal and professional development. He motivates people from all walks of life to achieve sustainable, high-energy, extraordinary outcomes and travels the world to train fitness and health professionals on the most current tools for optimal success. He is a best-selling author. His books include the 1988 original “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, P.S. It’s All Small Stuff," the 25th Anniversary edition of that book, and “Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace”.

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