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Are Adult Coloring Books Art Therapy?

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Over the past two years or so, adult coloring books have become nothing short of a phenomenon. In 2015, an estimated 12 million of these books were sold in the U.S., both increasing the sales of adult non-fiction by nearly 7%, and causing a worldwide shortage of – you guessed it – colored pencils.

But does coloring really yield therapeutic benefits for the mind? Researchers at New Zealand’s University of Otago decided to find out.

For the study, which was recently published in the Creativity Research Journal, researchers gave 115 women either an adult coloring book or a book of puzzles. Every day for one week subjects either colored pictures of animals, mandalas, and images of nature, or completed puzzles such as Sudoku and word searches.

Participants rated their stress, depression, and anxiety levels before and after engaging in the activities.

The study confirmed that to at least a small, short-term degree, coloring exercises reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. The puzzles, however, did not have the same effect, although both types of exercises appeared to improve the mindfulness of participants, even if just a little bit.

From the study:

“Coloring could be considered an act of every day, of little c creativity in much the same way as gardening or gourmet cooking.”

Other experts, however, do warn against using coloring books as a substitute for clinical art therapy.

From a recent study in the Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal:

“What many of these studies are lacking is the presence of a trained art therapist during the art-making portions of the experiments and the verbal processing of the art product created—both are crucial components of art therapy practice.”

For this study, researchers compared the experiences of adults who engaged in coloring with those who used art supplies in a studio, also conducted by a trained art therapist who initiated discussion and offered guidance.

Findings revealed that both types of activities did reduce negative feelings such as stress and anxiety, but only the studio exercise appeared to promote feelings of self-efficacy and creativity.

From the study:

“For many adults, entering an art studio…and being asked to create art can be quite an anxiety-provoking experience, so much so that most of them avoid this experience altogether. Yet it is precisely through having this initial discomfort…that leads to a change in one’s view of self.”

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology



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