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Color me calm

Fashionable these days are adult coloring books, which began in Europe and the US and have now found their way to Philippine bookstores. They are not anymore the kind to keep children busy and quiet. This time, it’s the adults who are hunched over the pages, with exquisite scenery and intricate patterns.

Adult coloring books are supposed to provide stress relief. The idea is to devote a few minutes of one’s day to think of nothing—not things to do, people to see or places to go to—except the task at hand. Choose a color, fill the space. Every stroke of the color pencil is supposed to be an exercise in mindfulness.

A Huffington Post article claims Carl Jung was one of the first psychologists to use coloring as a relaxation technique in the early 20th century. It adds that according to Spanish psychologist Gloria Martinez Ayala, we activate different areas of our two cerebral hemispheres when we color. “The action involves both logic and creativity...the relaxation that it provides lowers the activity of the amygdala a basic part of our brain involved in controlling emotion that is affected by stress.”

“We can use it to enter into a more creative, freer state,” advises psychologist Antoni Martinez, also quoted in the piece. Yet another psychologist cited, Luis Rojas Marcos, has gone to the extent of writing a preface to a coloring book.  “Coloring comforts us, gives us peace, and lets us enjoy ourselves —it even temporarily frees us from daily pressures...”

Not everyone in the profession is convinced.

Shannon Bennett, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at New York’s Weill Cornell Medical College, tells Heather Schwedel of The Guardian that “it’s not something that would be a go-to for me.” Donna Betts, president of the board of the American Art Therapy Association and an assistant professor at George Washington University, said she would never consider it using coloring for a therapy session. “There is a distinction between coloring and actually creating art.”

Some say coloring may be therapeutic, but it’s definitely not art therapy.

In an article for Psychology Today published in June 2015, Cathy Malchiodi, PhD argues that coloring “is not meditation or mindfulness—it’s coloring.” She is doubtful that there are indeed personal benefits “to methodically filling in a pre-made design with crayons or pencils.”

According to her, coloring is not mindfulness. “The fact that the concepts of meditation and mindfulness are being used to describe coloring pre-made designs is, in fact, insulting to these practices that have deep cultural, and spiritual foundations.”

It is also not creative art expression, however good it feels. She differentiates coloring from authentic creative expression—which is using one’s hands to create from imagination.

In the Guardian article, Malchiodi says it could all boil down to economics. “Many of the loudest proponents (of the idea that coloring books provide art therapy) are actually those that create the coloring books,” Malchiodi says. Ouch, but it makes sense.

So given that the experts’ opinion are varied, should colorists—that’s what people who have taken to the deed—continue to get their fix and spend their spare time coloring away, or would they just be as better off doing something else?

Is coloring a fad that is here now but will be gone too soon? Will the people who claim that coloring de-stresses them keep this habit as part of their wellness regimen, or will they move on, too?

But should what the experts or even the book marketers say even matter? If you feel that filling up spaces with colors calms and balances you, then go ahead and color away. Congratulations. Put your masterpiece on the ref door. Post it on social media. Your friends will be happy for you. Who else, after all, can tell us what is relaxing and what is not except we ourselves?

If, on the other hand, you’re doing it because everybody else is doing it, or because you think coloring would make you look cool and cultured and new age and all, then perhaps you’ve just discovered why you’re always out of sorts. It’s a condition that will take more than an intricate teacup design and a few colored pencils to ease.

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