It’s Monday night. Do you know where your crayons are?
For a growing slice of grown women, with big jobs, busy schedules and more than a bit of digital fatigue, going analog, in the form of hobbies you may last remember engaging in when you were eight, is the latest way to beat stress.
In fact, a new market of coloring books designed specifically for adults are topping the best-seller list on Amazon and have already become cult hits in England and France.
The Secret Garden, by Scottish illustrator Johanna Basford, which has sold over 1.4 million copies since it launched in 2013, currently holds the number seven spot on Amazon. Meanwhile, the fourth most popular book on the entire site is the plainly titled, Adult Coloring Book: Stress Relieving Patterns.
And the trend shows no signs of abating: Splendid Cities just rolled out, depicting themes that are definitely escapism-for-adults. The coloring books show detailed cityscapes of places like London and Paris, so you can color in cafes and iconic landmarks from the comfort of your couch.
But who breaks out these art supplies to achieve calm, and why? Self talked to women embracing the trend, as well as experts who can explain the beneficial effects a Crayola 64-pack just may have on your brain.
Why Drawing and Painting Still Captivate Us
“For me, coloring in coloring books is a nostalgic escape,” says Doreen Eckert, 38, an advertising account executive in New York. “It’s a different sort of relaxation, almost like a regression. It takes me back to being a carefree child, where a $3 box of crayons was all I needed to feel totally insanely happy.”
And she’s certainly not alone in finding that coloring can induce a state of euphoria, even if you’re well over twelve: “It’s just something that’s exploded in the last couples of years,” says Alice Chadwick, a British illustrator who designed several titles in the Splendid Cities series. “I live in east London, and it’s quite cool and hipster-ish. A year and a half ago, I was walking through the park on a beautiful evening. The sun was setting, and I saw a couple lying on the grass. As I got closer, I realize they were lying there coloring in together.”
One of the benefits of the books, Chadwick believes, is finding that sense of parallel play we often don’t experience as adults: “It’s kind of this collaborative thing you can do on your own, or with your mom, or your best friend of your boyfriend,” she says. “The social aspect is really gorgeous.”
For Eckert, breaking out the crayons is often an intergenerational affair: “My mother has always kept coloring books at her house. Sometimes when we would be catching up over coffee the books would be out on the coffee table, and we would just color while we talked. Sometimes my grandmother joins in. She says it helps her neuropathy,” she laughs.
And coloring books aren’t the only colorful hobby to make a comeback: Julie Monroid, who works in marketing in New York City, was re-introduced to paint by number when a friend surprised her with a kit at their share in the Hamptons last summer. Since then, she’s ordered ten more.
“I don’t just like painting,” she says. “I love it! Before Paint by Number, I would mindlessly watch TV, surf and shop the web. Now I paint while I’m watching TV, hanging poolside on vacation or just listening to music.”
For Monroid, the payoff is twofold: “It creates a feeling of accomplishment and happiness,” she says. “Most of all I don’t feel like I’m wasting time on mindless things, like Candy Crush!”
In fact, part of the appeal of these new-old pastimes is the fact that they literally are hands-on, and more tangible than most of what we do in the digital age, whether at work or play.
“Coloring is calming, and gives me a sense of accomplishment,” agrees Eckert. “But it’s a total sensory experience, too. The smell of the wax, the color on the page, the idea that you can complete something and have it be tangible, unlike so much of the work we do day-to-day. It allows my mind to wander while my hands are occupied.”
Our Brains on Coloring Books: Finding the Crayola High
In fact, what many women find is that the practice of connecting the dots, or coloring in a design already on the page allows them a rare privilege in the age of multi-tasking, social media and FOMO: Total focus.
“I still remember when I was getting married,” says Alice Domar, Executive Director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body and an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School. “I was taking a ceramics class, and I walked in all stressed out about my mother-in-law, and I walked out in a total state of bliss.
“Anything you focus on besides your regular, busy, often negative thought pattern, will help you relax,” she says. “I had a client who made stained-glass windows. When she was doing it, she couldn’t focus on work, or kids, or losing weight—she just got lost in it.”
“What we’re tapping into,” explains Domar, “is the same effects you see in meditation and mindfulness, which produce real physiological changes in your body. They’re the opposite of the fight or flight response: Your heart rate goes down, your rate of breathing goes down, your blood pressure goes down.”
As for the state of happiness so many born-again artists report, it really may come down to creating change in our gray matter: “What ends up happening is that when we engage in a repetitive activity, like coloring, or meditation or running, our brains generate neurochemicals such as norepinephrine and dopamine, which are the ‘feel good’ neurochemicals” says Dr. Ben Michaelis, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing: 10 Steps to Get Moving and Get Happy.
The trend also represents what he calls an “autotelic” pursuit, which means that doing the activity is the purpose itself, rather than the outcome. In other words, sure, you might like to post your creation on Instagram or Facebook (and many do), but the real satisfaction comes in just having completed it.
“The best part is when you finish a piece,” says Monroid. “Because of the paint by numbers technique, you don’t really get to see the whole painting until it’s finished, so it’s amazing to watch it come together and form what’s ‘on the box,’” she says.
And seeing the big picture is just part of the bliss.
This article was originally published on SELF