Coping by Coloring


The adult coloring book craze more is popular than ever, but should you count on it to help cure your blues?

Crayons, coloring books and finger paints may conjure up images of grammar school days gone by, but for those looking to alleviate pent up stress or anxiety, they may find relief from an unlikely source: adult coloring books. No, these aren’t coloring pages with risqué imagery. We’re talking about the latest hobby proven to be popular with Millennials and senior citizens alike. With hundreds of genres available in stores and online such as pastoral nature scenes, intricate geometric patterns, Harry Potter pages to David Bowie-themed books, the appeal of this relatively inexpensive pastime is easy to see. The seemingly mindless task is, for many, a form of relaxation and a tension reliever. Many also find the repetitive back and forth motion of the pencil to the paper soothing and anxiety reducing.

They’ve become so popular, adult coloring books are now even being offered as an amenity to guests in some hotels. Taking its place alongside classics like crossword puzzles and Sudoku books, smaller travel size versions of the coloring pages are also available to fit into purses or bags to make it easier to pass the time during trips or at the doctor’s office. August 2 is now officially recognized as National Coloring Book Day in the U.S.

However, some mental health professionals are quick to dispel the notion that adult coloring pages serve as little more than a distraction and a fad, while others accept its benefits to a degree, but are emphatic about making the distinction between “true” art therapy and scribbling in the pages of a “Game of Thrones” coloring book. South Pasadena-based marriage and family therapist and registered clinical art therapist, Michelle Bodwell, falls into the latter category. “People would be misguided to think that coloring in a book is going to do more for them other than just provide an immediate sense of distraction or temporary relief,” says Bodwell.

A graduate of USC and Loyola Marymount with over 19 years of experience as a marriage and family therapist and an equal period as a practicing art therapist under her belt, it was Bodwell’s love of all things creative and crafty that led to her to want to incorporate art into her other passions: psychotherapy and helping others.

Integrating both the left and right side of the brain, “real” art therapy can take many forms. It encompasses a wide range of expressive activities such as collages, painting, mosaics, music, dramatic performance, creative writing, and mind-body approaches for recovery and wellness in anyone including children, adults and families. These techniques help individuals in learning how the mind and body respond to the sensory aspects of difficult situations such as loss, depression, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Art therapy may also be an alternative approach for those who have difficulty expressing themselves verbally and are willing to try something new. You don’t have to be a Monet or O’Keeffe in the making to enjoy the benefits of art therapy either. “I believe that everyone is a creative person,” says Bodwell.

So what’s the difference between painting a picture at home and painting one in a therapist’s office? According to Bodwell, in its early days, there were two views of art therapy: art as therapy vs. art in therapy. “There are definite health properties. Doing art at home can be therapeutic. But, if somebody is trying to work on significant anxiety or depression or relationship issues, it may be a place for them to reduce stress, but it may not help them on their own or make changes in their life. That is where art in therapy comes in, where the therapist serves as a guide or reflector; someone who can journey along with them and help them come to those solutions for themselves.”

So, while there may not be a definitive consensus reached on what works and what doesn’t in terms of “true” art therapy, it can be agreed that any form of self-expression through art, be it a coloring book or collage, holds reparative powers for a wide spectrum of mental and emotional ailments both big and small.

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