Published May 9, 2016
By Drena Fagen, LCSW, and Nadia Jenefsky, MPS, Special to Everyday Health
Adult coloring books are now routinely out of stock in stores and online. Colored-pencil manufacturers can barely keep up with demand. People are lining up at coloring bars and meet-ups. Coloring enthusiasts have their own Instagram feeds with many followers. Even celebrities are coloring! Adult coloring books seem to be trend that’s here to stay.
As professional art therapists, we sure hope so. We’ve even published our own coloring book,The Real Therapists of New York Coloring Book, which we use in our free coloring bar sessions. While coloring is just one of the many ways creativity can enhance your life, it offers a simple introduction to the therapeutic power of taking pencil to paper.
If you color simply to relax, or if you can’t quite figure out what all the hype is about, we’ve got eight art therapy tips that will turn any coloring session into an opportunity for self-reflection.
1. Understand your motivation for using that adult coloring book.
Perhaps the kids are driving you bonkers or you’re looking for a way to procrastinate. Maybe you like coloring as a social event, or you reach for a coloring book, instead of a cigarette or glass of wine, to de-stress.
Taking notice of what motivates you to engage in any relaxing activity can be revealing. If you can figure out why you started coloring, it might reveal something about your automatic responses when you need to find relief in your daily life. Are your self-care decisions emotional and impulsive, or did you plan ahead to take time for yourself? Once you know the answer, you’ll have more control over and can make sure those methods work for you.
2. Try to stay in the moment, especially if you feel bored.
In our culture of constant contact and 24-hour activity, sitting quietly to color can feel uncomfortable and pointless. According to James Gleick, author of Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, being busy makes us feel successful and important.
But for some people, the need to be constantly active may signal underlying depression or anxiety. Thoughts and emotions that we try to keep at a distance can arise when we sit quietly without our electronic devices. This is why coloring is an ideal alternative to meditation. With coloring, you’ll produce something — a colored page. And you’ll have a task on which to focus your attention in the moment. If you’re struggling to stay present when you try to color, simply notice those feelings and keep going.
3. Think about your choice of coloring page.
But what if instead you chose an image that matches your mood, like a screaming face, one of the most popular in our own coloring book, and use it to express that feeling? Coloring an image that represents how you feel right now can be cathartic. Paradoxically, it’ll get you to that same calm state because you released your feelings instead of trying to escape them. Pay attention to your choice before you start coloring. Is the page you selected going to satisfy you today?
4. Notice how you feel about taking the time to color.
How much time we allow ourselves to spend on self-care or recreational activities is sometimes informed by messages from our family, our cultural heritage, and even society in general. These messages include expectations connected to gender roles and our values about work and play.
Do you have permission to do something that some might consider frivolous or childish? Do you feel guilty if you take too much time for yourself? Conversely, some of us won’t bother getting started on something unless we have enough time to do it perfectly. Are you done coloring when the clock says so, when the page is fully colored, or when real life interrupts and responsibilities beckon you back? Pay attention to what comes up as the time passes.
5. Take on that inner critic in your head.
Despite having more than 15 years as practicing art therapists, we’re still surprised by how many adults shy away from creative activities because they feel they’re “not good at it.” Do you have to excel at something to enjoy it? Whose voice is that, really? How many other things does this inner critic keep you from trying?
In mental health, it’s generally accepted that negative thought patterns, particularly those directed at ourselves, are the source of much suffering. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, works to challenge those thoughts and replace them with more helpful ones. What if you could tackle that inner critic at your own dining room table by working on an adult coloring book? Practice talking to yourself in a supportive, rather than critical, manner, so that you can keep coloring.
6. Check your investment in the outcome.
So few things in our lives lead us directly to a satisfying conclusion. For some people, this is why coloring feels so great. In a short time, you can complete an image that pleases you. But what if things don’t go as planned? Does that ruin the experience for you, or make you give up? Is setting aside the time for the activity enough to be gratifying?
Being curious about your desire for a particular outcome in any life situation is fodder for exploration. If setting goals or getting a little competitive with friends motivates you, then keep your eye on the prize! But if you find yourself often falling short of your own expectations, adjust the goal and focus on enjoying the moment rather than worrying about the final result.
7. Give your colored pages a social life.
Research shows that connecting with others is a key factor in helping us feel good about ourselves. But if you are someone who is concerned with what others think, showing your artwork to another person may feel like a risk. Your pride in your work might be deflated if the viewer fails to appreciate it, or worse yet, criticizes your piece. On the other hand, maybe you’ll be surprised. In the grand scheme of things, this is a simple risk to take. If you’ve not been showing your artwork to others, try doing so first with someone you trust will be supportive.
8. Color outside the lines.
One of our mantras in art therapy is that “there is no right or wrong.” When you set aside your inner critic and performance expectations, you’ll find that creativity can begin to flow. If the lines of a coloring page make you feel supported, then keep up the good work. If you’re curious to try moving out of the comfort zone of the lines on the page, take a chance and use watercolor paints.
Or better yet, create your own coloring page by closing your eyes and drawing a simple scribblethat you can color. We like to think of art-making as an opportunity to take risks and make discoveries, with very little consequence if things don’t go as a planned. So take a chance and experiment with those luscious colored pencils on a blank sheet of paper.
As art therapists we believe that creating art is a safe way to try new things and let the unexpected happen. If you try some our art therapy and adult coloring book tips you may discover that the simple act of coloring can give you real insight into your thought patterns, allowing you to stretch and grow, and ultimately face the uncertainties and challenges of life with greater self awareness.
Drena Fagen, LCSW, LCAT, ATR-BC, is the co-founder and director of adult services of New York Creative Arts Therapists PLLC, a private group practice in Brooklyn, New York. Fagen provides psychotherapy that incorporates cognitive behavioral and arts interventions for adults and teens. She is also an adjunct assistant professor at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University.
Nadia Jenefsky, MPS, LCAT, ATR-BC, is the co-founder and clinical director of New York Creative Arts Therapists PLLC. Jenefsky specializes in using art therapy to help parents and children improve their relationships and eliminate problem behaviors. She is a visiting lecturer at L’Atelier, a Masters level art therapy training program in Geneva, Switzerland, affiliated with the European Graduate School.