Friday, October 16, 2015

Colouring for Calm

We did it as kids; now we have 'permission' to do it as adults - colouring.  As a person who engages in 'mindfulness' activities such as meditation, I find the concept of colouring for calmness quite novel.  As a child I was a perfectionist when it came to my colouring (I CANNOT possibly go over the lines!!) and I am still the same now with many things I do - I wondered if colouring, for me, would create anxiety rather than calm! On my way back from Nepal recently, I spotted an 'adult' colouring-in book in an airport book store.  It was on mandalas, which I thought was completely appropriate considering where I had spent the last few weeks.  I love the mandala and all it represents.  Watching Nepali Thangka painters produce incredibly intricate and colourful mandalas with a steady hand made me realise how calm and centred they needed to be. It was intriguing to watch.

So I purchased the book and began colouring on the plane trip home.  Remarkably one of the things I noticed was the sense of 'mushin' (this is a term I knew from my karate training - it means "no mind').
I coloured and was completely immersed in the process - there was no inner voice attempting to pull me into distractions; no sense of urgency; no noise.

So why has the colouring-in-book become the latest 'must have' stress-relief tool for adults? Some could argue that in today's computer-dominated work space, people spend too much time looking at a screen and follow this up with TV screens at home or perhaps again straight back onto a home computer screen - thus reducing our ability to relax the brain and induce an anti-stress state.  Tis is happening not just with adults but at an earlier and earlier age.
Taken together, studies show internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision-making and cognitive control (Lin & Zhou et al, 2012).
In other words - we just cannot switch off, and we are teaching our kids how to not switch off also. The effects of prolonged stress are now well documented. Some folk may argue they are not stressed at all - but stress is insidious - it hides as busy-ness, rushing, attempting to fit too much into one day, not providing the brain time to rest ... all of which has an impact on the body at a physiological level - at a hormonal level - and the cascade of events that can be triggered are life-altering.
So - just colour! Colouring can be termed as an "active meditation".  It calms the mind and occupies the hands through repetitive and simple motions, the result of which focuses the brain on the present.
A recent study has shown that people who participate in creative activities are more engaged employees and exhibit less stress;  such activities cross-over with mindfulness and mantras - where there is just enough happening to slow the clutter in the brain down without it requiring so much concentration that it instead becomes draining.  In this busy world, people want a way to unwind that does not impact too much on their personal time - colouring appears to offer that opportunity. Amazon cites adult colouring-in books as being in their top ten sales of 2015!
Having purchased my own colouring book, it occurred to me one day that colouring could have benefits for my step-father who had recently had a series of strokes.  His fine-motor skills were impaired and he also had problems with his left eye and was struggling with the reality of what the stroke meant for him - a bright intelligent former doctor.  I knew he loved art and he had also painted water colours.  I bought him a colouring-in book and he has been slowly completing pieces at his own pace.  I wondered then too about the placement of these types of books in doctor's waiting rooms - what a fantastic way to lower anxiety (blood pressure!) prior to a doctors visit. 
Colouring is so popular there are Facebook groups dedicated to it, and in France colouring-in book sales have surpassed cook-book sales ... imagine that! Books are easy to transport, they can be done anywhere at anytime unlike meditating which is more difficult to carry out in a crowded workplace or hospital waiting room!
Colour-in ... create ... be amazed.

Lin, F., Zhou, D., Qin, Z., Xu, J., Lei, H. (2012). Abnormal white matter integrity in adolescents with internet addiction disorder. PloS One 7. No 1: DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030253

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