Colouring in: Therapeutic tool, soul food or nonsense?

Colouring in: Therapeutic tool, soul food or nonsense?

I have fond memories of sitting with my Aunty Karen at Grandma’s house and colouring in. I used to be amazed how she could turn a set of black and white lines into a kaleidoscope of colour with just 12 coloured pencils. I enjoyed the time I spent with her and the treats that Grandma was sure to bring. 

Today colouring in has become the next best self-help tool. I too own a new set of pencils and colouring book. Many web pages and blogs claim to colour in can have a positive effect on mood, increased self-expression, increased focus, help you engage in meditation and spark creativity by embracing your inner child. 

But yet when researching this topic I struggled to find journals or peer-reviewed articles. Could this be because adult colouring is a new topic or are the above claims false? Also, why don't I experience this positive kick? Why when I coloured in gift tags for Christmas I was so proud to stick them on the presents, but I haven't coloured in since? 

A study done in 2005, shows that colouring in a mandala or structured picture for 20 minutes can help decrease anxiety within a short term (1). It combines elements of both Art-therapy (colouring and form)and meditation (deeply concentrating on an experience that is soothing), however, should not be labelled as either.It can be used as a therapeutic tool in a structured group; however, colouring for pleasure has not been researched.

 As occupational therapists, we regard individuals as occupational beings who benefit from active engagement in meaningful occupation/ activities (2). The key here is that the activity needs to be meaningful. 

I realised that even though colouring in is promoted as a spoon conservation activity it still takes spoons. When I am doing something, I often feel like there needs to be a goal. I need to feel like I’m not wasting my spoons. So if I had to choose between trying out a new recipe or colouring in, you would find me baking. The lack of meaning I find in adult colouring is possibly the reason why it doesn’t tickle my fancy.I also realised that my childhood experiences normally involved others.  So perhaps a colour club where the main aim is socialisation could still draw me in.

 So should you colour in or not? 

My suggestion is to print out a free sample (there are many ideas on Pinterest) and engage in some experiential therapy. Try it out! If you feel it could be a hobby or something you enjoy go ahead and you may experience the positive spin-offs . All occupations are said to have beneficial ‘spin-offs’, the most known being health benefits for the individual (3,4).   

Group therapist wanting to include this as a therapeutic tool should consider the following points:
  • Let clients self-rate their anxiety pre and post activity
  • Provide a pre-drawn mandala and a set of good quality coloured pencils per person
  • The mandala must be complex, require attention and provide structure and direction to a client's process.  
  • Clients should be encouraged not speak during the process, but to rather focus on the repetition of the design and the act of doing.
  • Clients’ should be encouraged to share regarding their change in emotional states and not necessarily an in-depth view into their personal designs.

  1. Curry N and Kasser T 2005 ‘Can Coloring Mandalas Reduce Anxiety?’ Art therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association vol. 22 (2) pp. 81-85
  2. Wilcock, AA 1993 ‘A Theory of the Human Need for Occupation’ Journal of Occupational Science: Australian, vol. 1, pp.17-24.
  3. Rebeiro, K L and Cook,  JV 1999 ‘Opportunity, not prescription: An exploratory study of the experience of occupational engagement’ Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, vol. 66, pp.176-187.
  4. Hocking, C 2000 ‘Occupational Science: A stock take of accumulated insights’ Journal of Occupational Science, vol. 7, pp. 58-67.


  1. I have used colouring-in in therapy with stroke patients as a task to aid in return to writing as well as a leisure activity. Because it is a 'trendy' thing to do in current culture, it is not considered as childish as it would have previously. It is a task they can do with family that is therapy but is a more 'normalised' activity. I think it has a lot of potential and the lack of research probably is indicative of its recency in culture.

  2. I have been coloring since the new face came about!! I enjoyed it as a child and I still enjoy it today!! I find it very helpful when I am able to do it!! I have Fibro and RA in both wrists and my elbow along with many other places which doesn't allow me to color as much as I would like but I do find it helps with anxiety, depression, and focus!!

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