When I was a young child, I loved to color. Unlike the other children who would cast their crayons astray and draw chaos far outside the lines, I would spend time silently and meticulously coloring each page. I never thought that taking the time to do the same thing as an adult could serve any sort of purpose — but it did.
Ever since I can remember, my mind has swarmed with anxiety. Before I even had a name for it, I knew I worried more than most people. And even once I had a name for it, I didn’t have any idea how to process or deal with my jitters and panic.
My experience with anxiety feels chaotic. One minute, everything will be fine and the next, suddenly I’m not okay. My chest tightens, nothing is going right, and I’m caught in my head. Ensnared in a mesh of anxious thoughts, none of which are productive, I would search for a way to escape.
I tried a lot of things to manage the flares of anxiety as they’d come. I would talk to a friend, exercise, or perhaps do something self-destructive in a desperate attempt to manage. None of those things really worked — and they often came with consequences.
I would try to write or paint something, but I’d find myself unable to concentrate. The simple act of doing something artistic seemed to help — but I’m such a perfectionist that trying to write or paint something good, and the pressure that came with that, trumped any therapeutic effect it might have had.
Then I heard about adult coloring. It was already trendy by the time I caught on, and was quickly devolving from something new and interesting to something overused and commercialized. But I still thought I would give it a try. What did I have to lose? I already owned colored pencils and I could print a single sheet from online for free.
So I tried it. I sat down one particularly difficult evening with headphones in and colored pencils out.
I’m not sure what it is about the practice, but it was extremely effective at helping me through bouts of anxiety without indulging in anything that might be harmful later. I could sit through the meditative experience of completing an entirely aimless task. There was no pressure — I had full permission to do absolutely nothing while still satisfying the itch to do something to try to feel better.
Though it might seem silly, I’m not the only one who has felt these benefits from returning to a simple childhood task. A study published in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association in 2005 showed that people who engaged in structured coloring — meaning that they colored in a mandala or plaid shape — experienced a greater reduction in anxiety than those who colored on a blank sheet of paper.
Perhaps it’s the meditative aspect of it that makes a difference. Or perhaps it’s the satisfying feeling of coloring within the lines I craved as a child. Whatever the reason, I plan to continue the practice. It’s certainly not any less productive than whatever else I might do with that time, like complaining on the phone or watching TV — both of which could be making your anxiety worse.
Holly Van Hare is the Healthy Eating Editor at The Daily Meal with a passion for podcasting and peanut butter. You can listen to her podcast Nut Butter Radio on iTunesand follower her health food Instagram @eating_peanut_better for more.
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