Not too long ago I finished my therapeutic art coaching certification, and in the process I learned so much cool stuff. As you know, I love imagery and archetypes and doing this certification was like icing on the cake. But one of the most amazing things I’ve learned is the power of coloring books.

I was surprised to find out that coloring books can be used to derail negative repetitive habits. These habits can range from addictions to anxiety.

For me, overthinking and work addiction have been my biggest struggles.When I fall into overthinking, I often envision my mind as an overflowing bathtub with water spilling onto the tiles. It’s really uncomfortable, and it’s challenging for me to find my center.

I’ve done the coloring thing in the past. About eight years ago, coloring books for adults were all the rage. They were in all the bookstores and grocery store checkout lines. I tried to get into coloring then, but it didn’t capture me at all. I didn’t see the benefit of coloring books or enjoy them.

But after learning some new things, I tried coloring again with some minor, but important changes. And I found that yes, coloring can be really effective for overthinking and more. So here’s what I learned:

Coloring books can relieve anxiety and stress

Your choice of coloring book matters

This was the most important change. Back when I tried jumping onto the coloring trend, I just picked any random coloring book that looked interesting. And the results were meh. I couldn’t stick with it.

This time, I decided to be very intentional about the coloring books I chose. They have to contain imagery that I find personally meaningful and soothing.

For example, right now my favorite coloring book is Rooms of Wonder by Johanna Basford. For me this coloring book is great for indulging in escapism. Coloring the different rooms and environments makes me feel as if I’m slowly exploring and discovering new places. When I’m really anxious, this is my favorite coloring book to work in because it makes me forget where I am.

I like picking coloring books with personal symbolism. On Etsy, I’ve found some beautiful galaxy themed coloring pages. Coloring books can also be used to boost self-esteem. I really love the Black Anime Girls coloring book I found on Amazon. In fact, the beautiful hair styles of the girls in this book inspired me to get back into braiding my own hair.

So when it comes to coloring books, pick something that is soothing, escapist, and meaningful to you. Look for coloring books that remind you of your favorite places, fandoms, animals, fashion, symbols–all the favorite parts of yourself. If you look on Etsy for coloring pages, the options are endless. Lately, I’ve been drawn to coloring books that feature cute little monsters simply because I often see my negative emotions as these odd little creatures wreaking havoc within me. But all they really need is some compassion and attention.

As a side note, if you have a general purpose art journal or a large planner that you like to get creative in, give printable coloring pages a try. I’ve enjoyed printing pages out and sticking them in my art journal. Having coloring pages in my art journal releases the pressure to create and be original all the time. It’s nice having space to relax with art materials without needing to overthink it.

Keep the coloring tools simple

When overwhelm hits me, it happens fast. My overflowing mind doesn’t have the space to figure out if I should use crayons, color pencils, or watercolors.

Although I enjoy using crayons a lot, in times of crisis, I always pick up my basic 12 pack of color pencils. I don’t have to think about it. It’s super portable. It just works. And I keep a pencil sharpener bundled with it so that I don’t have to look for that either.

So if you’re planning on using coloring to deal with negative habits, keep it simple. It’s okay to have a set of 100 different colors when you’re coloring for fun. But when it comes to coloring to relieve the discomfort of overwhelm and anxiety, having a simple pack of 8 or 12 colors makes it much more accessible in the moment. I like to call my color pencils + the Rooms of Wonder coloring book, “My Emergency Coloring Kit.”

The two combined are amazing for reducing anxiety, overwhelm, and rumination. If your mind is stuck on repeating negative stuff, bring out your emergency coloring kit. As a highly sensitive person, I also struggle with task switching at times. I fight to focus on what I’m currently doing because my mind is still fixated on whatever I was working on an hour ago. I’ve been surprised at how taking a moment to color when I’m feeling this way has helped me soothe intrusive and repetitive thinking. It’s a simple way to ease yourself into letting go of your thoughts.

My process for using coloring to relieve overwhelm and anxiety

So my mind is a mess and things are getting crazy. Here’s what I do:

  • I grab my emergency coloring kit. I make sure to use a coloring book that feels escapist. (If I can get outdoors too, that’s even better)

  • I sit somewhere comfortable and take a moment to notice my body. Where do I feel tense?

  • I take three deep breaths. Through the nose and out the mouth. One. Two. Three.

  • I take a moment to briefly check in with my body again. How does the tension feel now?

  • Then I flip to whatever coloring book page feels the most escapist and start coloring.

I color until my mind slows down, and I am fully relaxed.

It’s more than just a distraction

Lately I’ve been reading the book ADHD 2.0 by doctors Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey. This book has been such a life changer for me that I’ll probably mention it quite a bit in future blog posts. Although it’s mainly about people with ADHD, I believe the findings in this book are priceless for those who also suffer from the emotional burdens of being highly creative.

When your brain falls into rumination, it starts using what is called the Default Mode network (DMN). This group of neurons is responsible for imaginative thinking, reflecting on the past, and envisioning the future. Obviously, having a strong imagination is awesome, but the flip side of that is the tendency to fall into useless rumination.

According to the writers of ADHD 2.0, it’s been found that to stop rumination the mind needs to shift to the Task-positive network (TPN), the group of neurons responsible for working on a task with focus. And fortunately, like working out a muscle, the more we practice switching to the TPN, the easier it gets.

However with ADHD, the switching between the two networks is chaotic, because in the ADHD brain, it’s common for both networks to be going at the same time, effectively battling each other, or to find oneself stuck in one network or the other without being able to easily switch back.

A good way to deal with these neurological communication issues and to go from rumination to calm, is to do something actively creative. People who tend to ruminate have strong imaginations that cannot tolerate boredom. If that imagination has nothing to work on, it will go straight to the bad stuff. I’ve been there, done that.

The remedy for this is to switch to using the imagination in an active and creative way.

This book suggests doing anything that will actively engage your mind. And as I’ve shared here, breaking out a set of coloring pencils and your favorite coloring book is a simple way to accomplish that.

Besides doing some coloring to spend time contemplating a subject that you enjoy is just simply fun.