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Escape into a world of color: Adult coloring books are growing source of relaxation

The biggest trend in publishing in 2015 involved black and white pictures.

Adult coloring books, fueled by the runaway success of Johanna Basford’s 2013 release “The Secret Garden” and the 2014 follow up “The Enchanted Forest,” have exploded onto the market. They’re sold in gift stores, book shops and grocery checkout lanes. There are coloring books themed around “Star Wars” and the Harry Potter universe, floral scenes and lovely Indian mandalas, and even more adult fare. There are dozens of books that incorporate curse words into intricate designs, and dozens of others that depict more amorous subject matter.

The comic book titans DC Comics and Marvel have gotten into the act as well, releasing comic books sans colors, including the seminal Batman graphic novel “Hush” and “The Avengers: Civil War.”

All this in the quest to chill.

Adult coloring is billed as stress-relief for busy adults, and as an exercise in mindfulness, which is the practice of focusing on the moment. And while there is little (if any) academic research on the effectiveness of coloring specifically to help people de-stress, mindfulness is well established as a legitimate therapeutic treatment. Local therapists find that the books can work for some clients.

Fernando Ortiz, a psychologist and director of counseling services at Gonzaga University, said the campus counseling center has stocked coloring books in its lobby since last fall. The idea, his said, is to give distressed students something calming to focus on while they are waiting to see a counselor.

Mindfulness works by helping people recognize and organize the fragmented thoughts that rush through their heads. For several years, GU’s counseling center has facilitated successful groups in coping strategies and mindfulness.

The first step Gonzaga counselors take in teaching mindfulness is coaching students “how to listen to their thoughts, and how to quiet their mind,” Ortiz said. It takes a couple sessions, and it’s “really key,” he added. “The students are constantly attending to a lot of stressors. They’re multitasking, they’re running from class to class, and there’s a lot of noise in their minds. There’s a lot of anxiety.”

Once students stop fighting those anxiety-provoking thoughts and become aware of them, the next step is to start doing something – “something that is tangible, something that involves touch, that involves some sort of active exercise, and that is usually followed by some visualization exercise,” Ortiz said.

He added, “A repetitive activity that allows for the brain to be centered and grounded is very helpful.”

Like coloring.

In addition to keeping the books in the center’s public areas, they’re also used within the counseling session, Ortiz said. “The students find it not only creative but very centering.”

Natalie Kreese Hamm, a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Coeur d’Alene, sees the books as another tool in her toolbox of mindfulness techniques.

“I think through the art of coloring, one can focus on the moment through the intricate designs,” she said.

She said other mindfulness techniques can include journaling, exercise, even cleaning one’s house, or “eating and savoring a meal.”

Not only does she use the books for her adult clients, but she’s found they’re good for teenagers in helping them “unlock their defenses.” An icebreaker, essentially.

“A teenager is less apt in the first counseling session to verbally communicate their feelings and their needs to me,” Kreese Hamm said. “So it’s an act of joining with them.”

It helps the young people realize they’re in a safe place, she added and offers a “positive distraction in a therapeutic setting.”

In her office, she keeps books that incorporate inspirational quotes; if clients meditate or are mindful on the quote, she said, “it can help change their negative thought pattern, especially with my depressed and anxious clients, to a more of a positive thought process.”

One doesn’t have to be anxious or depressed to benefit from mindfulness activities, she said. “Anyone that can pick up a crayon or a colored pencil can benefit from this experience,” she said. “We’re leading such busy lives today.”

Coloring goes boom

According to a March 12 Washington Post story, Neilsen Bookscan reports that 12 million coloring books were sold in 2015, up significantly from 1 million in 2014. Whether the trend lasts beyond 2016 remains to be seen.

Publishers are still releasing books at a rapid clip, but they’re also looking out for the next big thing. Melissa Opel, the head book buyer and interim manager at Auntie’s Bookstore, said one company is producing a series of paint-by-sticker books – like paint-by-numbers, only with stickers. A Feb. 16 story in Publisher’s Weekly on the 2016 New York International Toy Fair talked about connect-the-dots book for adults, with up to 3,000 dots per page arranged in intricate patterns “suitable for framing” – or coloring afterward.

Andy Dinnison, who sells coloring books at both his shops, Boo Radley’s and Atticus, said he is seeing sales slow, but not dry up. He said he thinks the reason is simple: “People don’t need 50,000 coloring books in their lives.”

But they’re still selling. At Atticus, “The Mindfullness Coloring Book” is popular, likely because it’s smaller and will fit in a purse. At Boo Radley’s, they carry the “Sweary” books and more oddball titles, frequently British: “Colour Me Tom Hiddleston” or “Colour Me Eddie Redmayne.”

At Auntie’s, Opel said sales seem to be keeping pace with last year. “I am finding that people are getting a little bit more selective about what they’re purchasing in terms of coloring books,” she said. “The publishers, I can tell you … are not anticipating it ending anytime soon. … All of my catalogs have coloring books of some sort.”

Dinnison sees that, too. But he finds the quality of some of the offerings laughable: cheap paper and hilariously bad drawings.

“They were just pumping out anything as soon as they had an idea in their head,” he said. “Let’s do a rainbow coloring book. Boom! Let’s pump that out. They can have something like that done and out in a month or two … which is not how it works in the rest of the publishing industry.”

Coloring books selling out of the bookstore is not a new thing, Opel said, as Auntie’s has sold Dover’s coloring line in its children’s section for years. What changed everything was “The Secret Garden,” which sported gorgeous artwork on high quality, archival paper.

“You see this change from something you pick up for $3, you color it an you’re done with it,” Opel said, “into something that is really beautiful and super well done. That seemed to spark interest for people. That book was horrible to keep in stock.”

She added, “The mindfulness movement and coloring books just collided together.”

The release of coloring books tied to “Star Wars,” comic books, TV series such as “Sherlock” and “Dr. Who,” and films such as “Frozen,” opens a new market to “the nerd in all of us,” she said.

“I have the ‘Star Wars’ one at home. I color my little Yoda every once in awhile,” she said.

Coloring for her is not market research or for her job. She does it because she likes it and it helps. “I’m a high-stress sort of person, and I’m ADD on top of it. For me, it’s just simple,” Opel said. “I do practice meditation, but there are times for me when my brain is running too fast and I’m not disciplined enough yet to be able to really make it stop and hunker down in meditation. So to be able to combine moving my hands and doing something that doesn’t take up a lot of mental energy … it makes a lot of sense.”

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