Juggling Act: Coloring – it’s not just for kids anymore

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Running around at the end of yet another busy week, I rushed to the Royal Oak Public Library last month and settled into a seat in their Friends Auditorium with nearly 20 other adults I didn’t know.

We were all there for one reason: to color.

Do you bring a bottle of wine to a coloring party, I wondered? A hostess gift? Markers?

I actually didn’t need to bring anything. A wide array of pictures and colored pencils were provided, along with snacks and water. Wine would’ve made everything better.

The library’s sold-out Keep On Coloring party – its second of 2016; another is planned for Thursday and April 7 – reflects one of the hottest trends these days when it comes to finding ways to decompress in our ever-busy, stressed-out culture.

I bought my first coloring book last fall after seeing displays at every store from Barnes & Noble to Kroger. Each book had names such as “Coloring for Calmness.” My gerbil-on-a-wheel brain demanded I buy it. Then my coloring book sat untouched through the holidays and beyond. I was too busy and stressed to even open it.

But after hearing about a growing number of local libraries hosting coloring parties, I decided to try it. I would force myself to ignore the laundry, dirty dishes and my never-ending to-do list. And I would step away from the TV and my smartphone to do something my kindergartener is working on. I would color.

At the library, I picked a printed picture with two owls perched on a tree. There were more complicated designs with mandalas, flowers and towns, but the owls spoke to me.

Surrounded by people of all ages and backgrounds – seniors, college students, married couples – I picked up a green colored pencil and began coloring in leaves, one-by-one. As I focused on staying in the lines, something happened. I had to focus. And the more I focused, the calmer I felt.

That’s what coloring does, says Lacy Mucklow, a certified art therapist and the author of series of adult coloring books. It allows people to unplug and helps them focus, thereby reducing anxiety. She says research has shown that the repetitive motion and detailed designs actually induce a meditative state in most adults.

It “allows them to tune the world out for a little while as they focus on the images they are coloring,” writes Mucklow in an email. “Coloring uses both hemispheres of the brain – both the analytical and creative halves – and has a relaxing effect on it overall, especially in the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain that controls the fight or flight response and gives it permission to let its guard down.”

Coloring also can help preserve fine motor skills, especially for people with chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease. And it gives people a sense of accomplishment, says Mucklow, who uses two types of coloring with her art therapy clients: free hand drawing or pre-printed pages.

Pre-printed pages allow “them to focus in the here-and-now or distance themselves from other things that are on their minds that may be causing stress,” writes Mucklow, the author of “Color Me Happy” and “Color Me Calm,” which is No. 8 on the New York Times best-seller list. “Coloring can be good in general for people to help them with everyday stressors or to gain better focus or concentration.”

And there’s a social component to coloring. Mucklow says its an innovative way for people to bond with each other.

That’s one thing that drew Mary MacDonald and her husband Patrick to Royal Oak’s party. They enjoyed the library’s first coloring party so much, they came back for the second.

“Once I started it, I couldn’t stop,” says MacDonald, who continued to color two more pictures after attending the library’s first party.

I sat next to Royetta Ealba of Royal Oak, who also was attending her second coloring party. Ealba methodically colored a grid of geometric shapes, a natural choice for a college math professor.

As we colored and chatted, I forgot about my busy day, busy week, and busy tomorrow. All that mattered was the next green leaf.