Margaret Carlock Russo

As awareness of mindfulness and stress management self-care techniques grows, adults are rediscovering the simple pleasures of engaging in coloring to relax, while also improving their brain function.  And now researchers have found that focusing on coloring “inside the lines” can help you “think outside the box,” through the recent trend of adult coloring books.

Although, using coloring books should not be confused with the delivery of professional art therapy services, during which a client engages with a credentialed art therapist, they can be a great resource for self-care, and when part of a group, the shared experience can make it more meaningful. Engaging in coloring, in addition to being stress relieving, can lead to becoming more familiar with art materials. As residents become more confident, they may become interested in more creative expressions such as free drawing, painting or other artistic engagement.

Here are three powerful reasons to consider including this new trend as part of your person-centered offerings:

  • 1. Coloring serves as a gateway to more creative pursuits. Those who are not experienced artists can start with coloring and may find it leads to more creativity. The next step may simply be a stronger focus on color and patterns — leading residents to be more confident incorporating color in their daily lives. Research shows that coloring can also help individuals become more creative at analytical thinking.
  • 2. Coloring has the potential to reduce anxiety and stress. The act of coloring can be soothing and even meditative at times. As with meditation and tai chi, coloring allows people to forget everyday thoughts as they focus closely on their task. One expert points out that this can be especially true for those who aren’t comfortable with more creative forms of art, such as free-form painting. Coloring provides the structure and safety of a pre-established pattern.

    Scientists researching this phenomenon have noted positive changes in heart rates and brainwaves of adults as they color. One study showed that anxiety levels dropped when subjects colored mandalas, which are circular images. Coloring mandalas is particularly effective at reducing stress, due to the concentric patterns often found in these ancient designs.

  • 3. Coloring sharpens the memory.  A mandala-coloring workshop is among many art offerings for residents. During the sessions, participants color in black and white circular images using colored pencils. Participants feel empowered and creative, and the class has been described as “rejuvenating.”

At Splendido, a Life Plan Community in Tucson, resident Jacque Becktold described, “I became interested in the workshop when they said this could help with memory.” She believes the mandalas helped sharpen her memory because she’s been using her brain in a different way. “It’s planning the colors — you use so many! I sit there and plan out how the design will look before I get started,” she explains.

Experts support her theory. Psychologists believe the act of coloring can involve both creativity and logic: Selecting colors for specific shapes taps into the analytical part of the brain, while creating the overall color mix uses the brain’s creative side. This exercises the brain in a unique way, by activating areas of the cerebral cortex that control vision and guide fine motor skills.

When life can be complicated, finding peace and calm in a creative outlet can often become a respite that encourages more clear thinking, while fostering a sense of community and accomplishment. While it’s been a long time since some have enjoyed coloring, residents can reap the benefits of going back to their creative roots in one of the simplest ways – through coloring.

In addition to improved mood and memory, they’ll also have some colorful keepsakes.


Margaret Carlock-Russo, Ed.D., ATR-BC, is an art therapist at Splendido, a Mather LifeWays & The Plaza Companies Residence.