Categories: Health & Wellness

Outside the lines

The St. Albert Public Library held its innagural adult colouring event at Forsyth Hall last week.

“To be honest I was fascinated when I was young. My favourite thing to do in school was colouring.”

Dola Ritter works in the service industry in St. Albert. She has been serving customers eight hours a day, five days a week for close to two decades.

“There are some fantastic days and there are busy days,” she says. “Those days where you can’t find the time to take a breath before turning around and preparing more coffee, you’re looking for something to do in the evening.”

When she wants a bit of me time she turns to a selection of black and white flowers ready to fill in the blanks.

When Ritter wants to relax, she colours.

It all started in the fall when her niece, a schoolteacher in Mexico, shared pictures she had coloured during a Skype conversation. The intricately tinted designs spoke to her childhood passion and she went to hunt for an adult colouring book of her own.

She didn’t have far to look.

Adult colouring books have been flying off the shelves lately – Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford’s intricate fauna and flora designs topped Amazon.ca’s bestseller list last year and all of her three titles combined have sold more than 16 million copies worldwide – after being marketed as the next big thing in mindfulness and relaxation.

They can be found at Chapter’s, Costco and drugstores, evolving niche hobby to international trend.

Independent U.K. publisher Michael O’Mara published its first colouring book a year before Basford’s famous Secret Garden hit the market in 2013, but told the The Guardian that it wasn’t until the category was “reimagined as a means of relaxation” two years later that things really took off.

Now the publishing house has two separate lines, Creative Colouring for Grown-ups and The Art of Mindfulness, with more than 20 different titles, plus travel editions.

“Selling the anti-stress angle gave people permission to enjoy something they might have felt was quite childish,” Ana McLaughlin, head of publicity, marketing and online, told The Guardian.

That’s how they sucked me in.

When I first heard about the colouring craze I thought it came part and parcel with the let’s-regress-into-the-better-days-of-childhood movement that spurred the creation of adult preschool. But when I started noticing the words “zen,” “mandala,” and “mindfulness” on the covers of the books I would peruse during my monthly trips to the pharmacy, I started thinking maybe this could be something for me.

When I get home from the daily grind, I’m no different than Ritter. All I want to do is zone out for about an hour, whether that’s with a book, the cast of Chicago Med or, now, with my collection of wacky designs.

And zone out I do. The back and forth motion is often the only thing I think about when colouring, which is odd considering my mind is often in overdrive.

The repetitive motion has the ability to, what therapists call, self-soothe or self-regulate. In other words to calm the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for fight or flight reactions and can be activated when a person gets upset or stressed out.

Other self-soothing activities can include anything from petting a dog to taking a bath to receiving or giving a hug.

Colouring is one of the tools that Morinville psychologist Thomas Holmes prescribes to patients dealing with feelings of anxiety, depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“It’s a very predictable and repetitive activity, which is very regulating,” he says. “It really supports the reduction in the heart rate. There’s a lot of control there, and it can even be a really good thought replacer. If someone is inundated with negative thoughts, it can be a really great distraction and help them concentrate on more positive things.”

It can also be used proactively says Holmes. By setting aside a scheduled time for stress-relieving activities such as colouring, individuals can take an active role in looking out for their mental well-being.

The relative ease of the practice also makes it attractive. Rather than hauling yourself and your yoga mat to the gym every week, colouring requires a one-time purchase of materials – at least until you run out of blank designs – and can be done within the comfort of your own home.

“In the field, I think that’s what we always want to do – we want to help connect people to tools that they find beneficial,” says Holmes.

But it’s only a tool. Colouring is by no means therapy.

Therapeutic? Perhaps. But therapy, definitely not.

A New York Magazine article made the connection between colouring and decision-fatigue – the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision-making. Science columnist and neurologist, Jordan Gaines Lewis writes that given life is a series of choices from what socks to wear to whether to end a relationship, a series of inconsequential decisions – namely what colour goes where – can be alluring at the end of a long day of deciding.

In art therapy it’s all about decisions. Even with an activity like collage, says Spruce Grove art therapist Jean Tait, clients are choosing images that resonate with them or stimulate them in some way.

“It’s also how they put it together, and most importantly, when working with an art therapist, how they explore the image,” she explains.

Through the process of asking questions about the artwork, the metaphor or the underlying emotions come forward – often more easily than in pure talk-therapy.

That’s because traumatic experiences get stored in the primitive brain, which cannot be accessed by words, only pictures, says Tait. The art acts as a container for the subconscious.

With colouring, you may get a chance to zone out and calm down, but you’re not exploring the trauma, whether it be a childhood experience, a recent divorce or a car crash, that could be at the root of your anxiety, stress or depression.

Tait also warns about labeling the activity as a mindfulness practice.

“Mindfulness practice comes from a whole bunch of different religions, and it’s a very prescribed process of learning how to be just there in the moment. People think they’re being in the moment when they’re colouring back and forth, but really they’re just zoning out,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with colouring between the lines.

“I think (colouring) has value in stress reduction, especially for women to take a pause out of their life,” says Tait.

That’s exactly what it offers Ritter – a sort of escape among the multiple floral arrangements and planets she carefully shades with the use of pencil crayons – her medium of choice.

“I’m glad I fell into this colouring thing,” she says.

A colouring where to

Whether we’ve sharpened your interest or you’re already an experienced colourist, here a few local venues where you can leave you mark.
St. Albert Public Library: Take some time to relax and socialize every second Thursday of the month with Colouring for Grownups. BYO(Book) or use the tools provided by the library. The next session will be held on Thursday Feb. 11, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Forsyth Hall. There is no cost to participate.
Green Bean Coffee House and Bistro in Morinville: Brighten up your Mondays with a cup of Joe and some colouring books. Every Monday evening from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. you can join owners Doug and Angie Adsit and manager Deby Kelly in some good ol’ fashioned fun, free of charge.

Michelle Ferguson: