Can adult coloring books really reduce stress levels?

The relaxing hobby has made a comeback

By Ashley Garrett - ClickOrlando.com intern
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

ORLANDO, Fla. - Though coloring books were once associated with kindergarten classrooms, adult versions of the colorful hobby have brought it back. You may have even seen them sitting at the top of Amazon’s best seller list. This reemergence of a youthful pastime is mostly due to the popular belief that coloring books for adults provide significant stress relief.

But can coloring in between some lines really lower your stress levels?

According to Meredith Malkin, a mental health counselor and expressive arts therapist at the University of Central Florida, it can.

“Creating art increases ‘the feel good’ neurotransmitter dopamine and can reduce stress hormones, like cortisol, leaving you feeling mentally clear and calm,” Malkin said.

Cortisol, considered the body’s “stress hormone," is responsible for important functions, like controlling your “fight or flight” instinct and regulating blood pressure. However, too much constant stress can lead to various health issues, including anxiety, depression, heart disease and weight gain.

A 2016 study led by an assistant professor at Drexel University found that 45 minutes of art making resulted in lower cortisol levels. The participants in the study reported that it left them feeling more relaxed and free from constraints.

Art therapy has become an increasingly popular form of treatment -- coloring, painting and drawing have shown to help people suffering from PTSD process the traumatic events they’ve experienced. While solo coloring books are not considered an official form of art therapy because they don’t provide a therapist-client relationship, they’ve proven to be a helpful and inexpensive alternative to traditional therapy that can be accessed by anyone at any time.

Coloring appeals to the right hemisphere of the brain that manages creativity. According to Malkin, it can trigger a bodily sensation similar to that of meditation.

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“Creative therapies can enhance self-regulation for people who experience distress and promote authentic self-expression, feelings, and emotions. Additionally, when you get immersed in a creative process, you may find yourself in what’s known as a state of flow,” Malkin said.

Pamela Mills, coordinator of biofeedback and stress management with Wellness & Health Promotion Services at UCF, credits the self-expression that coloring books provide for their ability to put you in “a more relaxed state.”

“One of the reasons coloring books are so popular is because you’re expressing yourself through color and this can be very telling of what you’re feeling on an emotional level. You can express those emotions in a positive, safe way,” Mills said.

Adult coloring books can be particularly helpful for college students who can often feel overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed academically, financially and socially.

“College students also like coloring because it’s fun and perhaps reminds them of a simpler time in their lives when they were children,” Mills said.

While it may seem almost impossible to carve time out of the day for creative healing in the midst of life’s demands, coloring books are a quick meditative practice that can easily fit into your hectic schedule.

Malkin suggests grabbing a few coloring books related to a particular interest or theme if you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.

Other alternatives include engaging in mindful walking, creating a portable and accessible art kit to take with you during breaks in the day, and utilizing technology to take photos of your surroundings to enhance mindfulness and awareness of your environment, according to Malkin.

“People can incorporate art making into their own individual lifestyles,” Malkin said.

Completing a daily creative activity that works for you won’t just help to maintain your body’s stress levels -- it’ll leave you feeling lighter from the inside out.

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