I Used Adult Coloring Books To Relieve Stress, & Here's How It Went

I definitely consider myself stressed-out. I feel a lot of pressure to keep a tidy house and to feed my kids good food. In the morning, trying to pack my son a lunch and feed him breakfast and get his and his sister’s shoes on and get to the bus stop in time is easily the hardest part of my day, and often I can feel my heart racing at just the thought of it. When I’m cooking dinner and my husband isn’t yet home, and I haven’t had a single break from my kids or talked to another adult all day, I feel frazzled, touched out and in desperate need of recharging. I’m always looking for ways to de-stress, so when it was suggested to me that I try using an adult coloring book to relieve stress, I figured it was worth a try.

More and more adults are taking up coloring, and I'd really describe it as sort of trendy. But it turns out that people have been coloring to de-stress for a long time. Apparently Carl Jüng had patients color mandalas to relax. It helps by allowing us to use our senses and fine motor skills and creativity, all good things. They're also all things I enjoy, so it seems pretty legit.

The Experiment

I’ve tried mindfulness meditation, yoga, knitting, TV, reading, and screaming into a pillow, but sitting down and coloring with my kids was a new thing. I was going to try coloring with them, coloring by myself, coloring at home, and coloring out and about. I wanted to consistently color for relaxation for a whole week, and see if it would help me unwind.

This is what happened.

Day 1: A Family Of Artists

Art is a huge part of my life already, and I admit, as a former art student, I sort of failed to see the point of coloring when I could be painting or drawing. Days when I spend the whole day painting a canvas in acrylic have been some of my favorites, and I've even added the kids to mix, getting them mini canvases to paint on also. It's been a great way to keep everyone occupied, and with enough drop cloths and cups of water, clean-up isn't too bad either.

One of the things I admired so much about my husband when I met him was the fact that he is an amazing artist and graphic designer. I definitely thought our offspring would be so artistic. I've read texts about developing creative thoughts in children and I've given my kids lots of opportunities to explore materials and art. And when they create something I love (pretty much everything), it goes on our wall.

In the research I've done about developing creativity, it always suggests emphasize process over end product, exploration over formalism, and not putting many constraints on how they should explore. Coloring books are basically the complete opposite of all of these things. Still, the object of this experiment was relaxation, not creation, so I had to let all of that go.

That bit was hard for me. I found the first day of coloring pretty boring. Granted, the only coloring book I had access to (that wasn't a kids' book printed on newsprint) was Celtic designs, which weren't as intricate as I wanted. I felt like I was wasting time trying to fill in the large areas of those pictures. If I was going to enjoy this, I'd need something more fun.

Day 2: So. Many. Choices.

The first bit of business was finding a coloring book I wanted to try. I went to my local craft store and was overwhelmed at how many choices there were. I know that adult coloring books are pretty trendy right now. (And I sort of giggle that instead of being aimed at adults, the books actually contain adult content. Although, come to think of it, I don’t think I have pencils in a multitude of flesh colors, so that would be quite an investment. Also that would be more difficult to do with my kids and in public. So I suppose that’s another experiment for another day.) I ended up getting some Art Nouveau stuff and some mandalas and mehndi designs. I was looking for a good mix of detailed and pretty.

Then there was the question of materials. I bought some thin-tipped Crayola markers and colored pencils. I hauled out the bin of crayons and little nubs that used to be crayons. I gave the kids their pick of coloring books (they were still very much into Halloween), and we all sat down and started coloring together.

Day 3: Letting Go Of Perfection

Naturally, because I was doing something new and different, my kids wanted in. My pristine box of colored pencil was quickly spilled on the table, and I had two little helpers on my experiment. I explained that we were doing this as a nice, quiet, relaxing activity to help us unwind, and they seemed up for this. We put on some music (somehow my daughter agreed to something other than the Frozen soundtrack) and we sat around the table coloring.

My 5-year-old son has always been somewhat resistant to coloring. I think it stems from the fact that his pencil grip isn't that strong and he's not that confident. Give him some finger paint though, and he's happy; give him a crayon, and he'll color for two minutes and drop everything in favor of toy cars. That bit has improved since he's been in kindergarten, so I was quite pleased when he happily set to work on one of the more challenging books I had bought for myself. I was surprised, and pleasantly so. I was going to color as a solitary activity, but if the kids could chill with me and we could all relax, all the better.

My son wanted to use the fine-tipped markers, which were sadly not nearly as fine-tipped as this picture demanded. He was frustrated right away with the way the ink ran over the lines he was trying so hard to stay inside. It was far from relaxing, because he was nearly in tears. We talked about how we're coloring for fun and we need to once again "let it go." (Cue my 2 year old belting out that little piece of Disney wisdom.) Armed with fine-point colored pencil and a new attitude, he set to work and we had almost a whole half-hour of family togetherness. It was pretty great. I don't know that it was a relaxing as it would have been if I was alone (on a deserted island, with a piña colada) but I liked that we could do it together.

Day 4: We Found Our Flow!

Over the week, we had a couple more sessions like this: All of us sitting at the table with our various books and implements, coloring while chatting or listening to music. On one hand, yay! family activity. On the other, it felt wickedly unproductive. That's something I really struggle with: the guilt of doing something for fun when I should be doing dishes. But for the purpose of really giving this a go, I tried to put myself in that self-nurturing mindset.

I got sort of into it. I enjoyed coloring in the areas lightly and then going back and adding some shading, as if some elements were lying on top of others. I enjoyed rifling through the colored pencil box and putting together a color palette. I do think I got to that "flow" headspace a couple times. I associate this state with writing stories and having dialogue just come out of me and onto the page without over-thinking or second-guessing. I associate it with painting and just having fun with brushstrokes and color and not being a perfectionist. (I am decidedly not a perfectionist, which I think helps.)

I don't know that I was less stressed, but I definitely understood why people found it calming and satisfying. I hadn't made anything that I wanted to frame, but that really wasn't the point.

Day 5: My Kids Were Into It!

After the first stressful day when our markers bled, my kids definitely got in the groove with coloring as a family activity. It never quite held their attention for more than half an hour, but any parent knows that half an hour at one activity is pretty darn good. Honestly, it just wouldn't have been relaxing at all if I sat down to a set of freshly-sharpened pencils and clean paper only to hop up the next minute to de-escalate a fight over some Legos. By my kids doing it with me, it at least guaranteed they weren't coloring on the walls.

My daughter is detail-oriented. She loves making little tiny marks on paper. It doesn't matter what the picture is most of the time; she just does her own thing. She's been a bit obsessed with the letter O and drawing minuscule little circles.

My son happily colored in whole pictures, which is not something he's done before outside of school. I am so proud of how much more confident he is about coloring and drawing and writing, and this was no exception. He even loved explaining which colors he put where and why he chose them. All in all, the kids were definitely having fun, and when the kids are happy, life is waaaaaaay less stressful. Points for Team Coloring!

Day 6: Coloring In Public

I know coloring books for adults are all the rage, but I haven't seen any adults sitting in coffee shops coloring. Naturally, this meant I needed to try. I went to coffee with my daughter and a friend. I had my purse and a tote bag full of our books and pencils and as we were talking, I pulled it out and got to work. The nice thing about coloring is that you can hold an intelligent conversation and color at the same time. And who doesn't love multi-tasking? (More on this in a moment.)

Almost immediately, my friend asked if she could color as well. And pretty soon, the group at the other end of the large table remarked at how much fun it looked. They wished they had something to color. And how relaxing it must be. I could totally see how this would catch on. I felt proud that I was paving the way for other people who had the desire to color while sipping a latte. I wasn't sure if it was goofy to do so, and these women's reactions made me feel like it might actually be sort of cool.

While it was sort of novel bringing all that stuff with me and getting attention from admiring passers-by, I think my favorite coloring time was when I was at home where I could really relax. At the coffee shop, we were constantly fielding comments and "oohs" and "ahhs" from people passing by. It wasn't exactly the place to unwind.

Day 7: Truly Unwinding

I'm sure many parents can agree that there is no better time of day than when the kids are first snug in their beds and snoring, and you find yourself suddenly free to pursue anything your heart desires. Of course, that only works when I don't fall asleep next to my kids, but it's been known to happen — occasionally — that I actually get something done between the hours of 8:00 and 11:00 p.m.

I love a good Netflix binge. And while I normally reserve streaming shows for when I'm folding laundry or knitting something, it was nice to have a different activity to occupy my hands while I watched.

Here's the problem, though: You have to watch what you're doing while you color. Maybe this is a no-brainer, but I'm able to knit and fold laundry while watching, because I only spend about a third of the time looking at what I'm doing. I was frustrated that I couldn't really color while admiring the tiramisu on The Great British Baking Show.

Did A Week Of Coloring Make Me Less Stressed?

The aim of this whole thing was that I wanted a way to de-stress. And while I found many parts of coloring (especially with the kids) enjoyable, I'm not willing to part with my other stress-relieving activities in favor of doing just this. For example, I love reading. Every time I leave the house, I make sure I have a book or my Kindle in my purse, because you never know when you might get a few minutes to read. I never found myself packing my coloring book up or even having the urge to do so unless I made it a point to remember to grab it. I think that's because I prefer reading to coloring, but also because it's easier to pack. The one time I brought it to the coffee shop was an intentional thing.

I also still really prefer to make my own doodles. I'd rather sketch a lousy bowl of fruit and use funky colors to shade it in than color in tiny intricate patterns, even though, likely, the outcome of the latter would be more pleasing to the eye. If I'm watching Netflix, I'd rather knit. If I'm really at the end of my tether and I need to do something immediately to loosen up, I'd rather work out or write.

I can see, however, that having clear guidelines as to where to color has its strengths. It takes the pressure off of you to be creative and it really does just offer you time and space to decompress. But I sort of like that pressure and thrive on it.

I was not less stressed out the week I focused on coloring. I still had the pre-dinner panic and the after-dinner request to not be touched for 10 whole minutes while I mentally prepared for bedtime. I don't think any one thing will ever cure any of that though, so I say: if coloring makes you happy, do it. Give it a whirl. But I'm going back to my other hobbies. I'm totally keeping the coloring books out for my kids though.

Images: Courtesy of Olivia Hinebaugh (7), Giphy (3)