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Calming colors: Study suggests coloring books can help reduce anxiety

Participants say adult coloring books an aid in reducing stress

The tables were set up for coloring either with pencils or markers, and some of the participants brought their own materials.

But this was not a coloring class for children. The event offered coloring for adults, a program that took place recently at the Geneva Public Library, in response to the heightened interest.

Adult coloring books are sold at drugstores, bookstores, grocery stores, department stores, convenience stores and even gas stations. listed adult coloring books that were best-sellers.

“It’s meant to be a drop in, and enjoy and have a good time,” library spokeswoman Paula Krapf said. “We are giving people permission to relax.”

“It’s very relaxing,” said Jennifer Jourdan, 37, of Geneva, as she colored a pre-printed pattern with a marker. “I’ve been introduced to it.”

There is some science behind the idea that coloring has a relaxing and calming effect. A study published in 2005 by Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association reported “it seems that the complexity and structure of the plaid and mandala designs drew the participants into a meditative-like state that helped reduce their anxiety.”

Coloring patterns available in books cover the gamut, from geometrical shapes, flowers, butterflies, plaids, paisley patterns and circles. Kelly Saltzmann of Geneva was a newbie.

“I’m just trying it out,” Saltzmann said. “I’m enjoying it.”

Debbie McCabe of Geneva said she didn’t know what to expect, but she found she enjoyed it.

“It’s very relaxing for kids to do it, so I can see why it’s coming back,” McCabe said.

She said the library made it nice for the group, with patterns to color and markers to color with, but next time, she was going to bring her own equipment.

“I like working with markers. I like art and I like to draw,” McCabe said. “When I’m coloring, it’s nice to be able to have a variety.”

Among the 20 participants were 19 women and one man. The one husband who was busy coloring did not look up, nor agree to be interviewed.

A common theme among the participants was that the exercise was relaxing and calming. Dana Hintz, a Geneva Public Library Board member, said she came because it was a library program. But she could see the attraction.

“It’s very tempting,” Hintz said.

Geneva resident Yvonne Richter just wanted to give it a try.

“I wanted to find out what it was all about,” Richter said. “I’m a quilter, so I enjoy blending colors. It was very nice and it was relaxing. I went out and bought two coloring books.”

• • •

Tim Kasser, an associate professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, did the study in 2004 with his graduate student, Nancy Curry. It was published in 2005.

Kasser said the study was Curry’s idea. All of his students must do a research project. For the project, student volunteers were asked to think of an experience that caused them anxiety, and it was measured.

Then they were asked to color a mandala, a plaid or draw freeform, Kasser said.

“The mandala and plaid did significantly reduce anxiety,” Kasser said. “Freeform drawing stayed at those high levels of anxiety. ... It’s hard to
color and think about anxiety at the same time. There is something meditative about going back and forth. It’s a meditative kind of state where you feel less anxious.”

When Kasser saw a Sunday news magazine article stating “studies show” adult coloring reduce stress, he realized it was their study. And then calls from reporters began.

“It’s been surprising to me how this has taken off,” Kasser said, regarding the popularity of adult coloring books. “I know other studies found similar results, but I believe ours was the first experimental study to demonstrate the possibility of this kind of coloring decreasing anxiety.”

Kasser said he hopes that when people buy the coloring books, they are truly doing something to reduce stress.

In 2004 when the study was done, he was drawing his own mandalas and coloring them. He stopped doing that and instead played piano for relaxation.

But after he was given a couple of coloring books as a Christmas gift, Kasser said he has been coloring, though he no longer draws his own mandalas.

“Yup, it’s relaxing,” Kasser said.

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