Destressing through coloring books and mandalas

Michelle Grewe/Courtesy

Slow acoustic music plays out of a small speaker as campus junior Maithy Nguyen sits at her desk getting lost in the soothing sound of her colored pencil moving back and forth across the page. Maithy comes home from a stressful day of classes and has a mountain of homework ahead of her. But for just one hour, she lets herself get lost in giving life to the complicated black outlines on the pages of her coloring book. Coloring acts as a way to de-stress from the busy life she and most UC Berkeley students lead.

“I… love taking ’me’ time because I feel like being a college student and juggling a million different things, we don’t have a lot of time to just sit and reflect,” Nguyen wrote in a text message. “Coloring helps clear my head, I don’t do too much thinking when I’m coloring.”

Daxle Collier, a health educator for University Health Services, explained that while there may be a direct link between coloring and anxiety reduction, stress management is very personal and art may not work for all people in reducing stress.

“There are few early studies suggesting that coloring mandalas in particular can be useful for reducing anxiety,” Collier said. “But it’s very personal, so I think while coloring might be really useful for one person, it might not be quite as useful for another person.”

Nguyen, for whom coloring definitely works as a method of stress management, started coloring in high school but stopped when college started and she got too busy. She didn’t pick it up again until her sophomore year of college, after a series of stress-related breakdowns caused her to realize a lack of balance in her life.

“I realized I was not allowing myself any ’me’ time and being too stressed out would stress me out even more,” Nguyen wrote in her text message. “It was such an unhealthy cycle.”

Since then, she colors about once or twice a week for approximately an hour while she listens to music or watches TV to let herself escape from all stress.

UC Berkeley freshman Molly Tomlin, who also colors to relieve stress, prefers to do so in silence, although she will occasionally color while listening to music or when watching TV.

“I (color) alone and that’s a big part of it,” Tomlin said. “I’ve (listened to music) in the past, but I think the best way to go about it is just kind of doing it in silence.”

Tomlin has similar coloring patterns to Nguyen in that she has also been coloring since high school and continues to do so about once a week when she is feeling particularly stressed out.

“I’m constantly thinking,” Tomlin said. “So when I’m coloring, all I’m thinking about is what colors I’m using and staying inside the lines and how it’s going to end up looking, so my sole concentration is on that. It helps me clear my head.”

Tomlin may enjoy the constraints provided by the lines, but for others, the borders could be even more stress-inducing. Collier explained that while each individual has a specific type of art – ranging from coloring books to free-form – that benefits their mental health, art does not help at all for some people.

“While I think for some people coloring something in is less stress-inducing because they don’t have the pressure of, ‘What am I going to draw?’ or, ‘Is my drawing good enough?’ … for other people the opposite could be true,” she said. “They might feel constrained by coloring something in and would rather just do free-form art. Of course, for other people, neither would really be appealing, so I think it just depends.”

Both Tomlin and Nguyen agree that they prefer to color over doing free-form and particularly enjoy more complicated mandala patterns.

“I … love seeing the pages slowly start to fill with color,” Nguyen wrote in her text message. “It’s nice and super satisfying to see the progress I’m making.”

According to the the Mandala Project, mandalas “represent wholeness, and can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself.”  They are geometric shapes and patterns linked to Buddhism and they represent the universe.Their symbolisms of balance and internality have transcended as mandalas have become westernized as a part of the recent popularization of meditation and self-reflection in modern culture. Although Collier recognizes the rising popularity of coloring books, she has seen no significant difference in students’ use of them as a therapy method.

“Interestingly, although I know adult coloring is becoming really trendy these days, I have not heard from any students about their experiences with that,” she said.

However, whether someone has  colored their whole lives, are just getting into it or have never done it, one thing is for sure: destressing is a highly personalized activity and can take various forms, including intricate mandalas.

For some, like Nguyen, coloring books also double as a journal, or a way to remember certain days.

“I love coloring books because it seems strange but I date them and when I look back at certain pages I can almost remember exactly what I was doing at that moment or like what ’era’ of my life I was in,” she said in her text message.

For Tomlin, the value of coloring is more about the luxury of doing something completely for herself.

“I think it’s something about taking you back to your childhood,” she said. “It’s a very simple act but also very reflective. When your mind is racing all the time, you have to do things that are super productive and we live in a society where everything you do is for something else. Like even working out, you’re working out to get somewhere, but with a mandala or with just coloring, I’m not doing this for anyone except me.”

Contact Frida Schaefer Bastian at [email protected].