As a new mom, there’s not much I can focus on these days. By the time I’ve finished a hectic day of work and put my seven-month-old daughter to sleep, my brain is too fried to concentrate on a book or even follow the plot of Mad Men (yes, I’m still catching up). Let’s just say I have a pretty good understanding of what it means to have “mommy brain.”
But one new hobby always helps me relax: coloring. A few months ago, I picked up a copy of Johanna Basford’s Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest and Coloring Book (Laurence King Publishing, 2015), a so-called “coloring book for adults” featuring elaborate illustrations of flora and fauna. I love it, and I’m not alone: Basford has sold millions of copies of her two coloring books, both of which have topped Amazon’s best sellers list for months.
I see evidence of a coloring craze in my friends home as well: elaborate coloring books are proudly displayed on coffee tables and bookshelves; packs of pencil crayons are given places of pride in the living room like priceless objets d’art.
For insight on why this simple analog activity has taken off, I rang up Janis Timm-Bottos, an associate professor of creative arts therapy at Concordia University in Montreal.
“We have a lot of good memories of coloring from our childhoods,” she explains. “It was a time when you didn’t have to do things in a certain way because you were playing.”
Coloring lets us experiment creatively when stakes are low. When many of us live chaotic day-to-day lives, simply selecting a color from the box can give us a satisfying sense of control. Choosing to make the grass on my page purple instead of green is my own little act of creative rebellion.
It’s not too rebellious, though. The intricate line details in Basford’s books provide a safe jumping-off point for my creativity that’s way less intimidating than a blank canvas.
Timm-Bottos says some art therapists use coloring as a first healing step with clients. “For people experiencing dementia, or anxiety, the coloring page is a nice form. The image is already there; it’s a bit of a scaffolding that gives you a place to start from to build your confidence.”
It’s also extremely relaxing. The act of methodically filling in flower and animal shapes hones my focus in a way I’ve never been able to achieve in all my years of yoga classes.
“Coloring as a practice is a type of meditation,” says Timm-Bottos. “The brain loves rhythm, and there’s a rhythmic motion with your hand when you color. You’re distracting your mind a bit by doing this rhythm, and it takes you out of the spiral of your problems and what you have to get done.”
And it’s a much healthier distraction than binge-eating a chocolate bar!