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Shading The Purported Benefits of Coloring Books

March 15, 2016

By Nancy Gerber, PhD, director of the PhD Program in Creative Arts Therapies

The current trend of increasing sales of adult coloring books points to an unmet need in many people's lives for some quiet, creative time. The books also highlight how the creation of art can diminish stress, increase imagination, and foster thoughtfulness.

However, many of those coloring books are also marketed as "art therapy." Lost in the enthusiastic response to the trend is the distinction that coloring, indeed a therapeutic activity, is not actually psychotherapy.

Coloring in coloring books can instill a feeling of well-being, promote creativity, and make people feel more at peace with and connected to themselves in the midst of fast-paced and stress-filled lives. The sensations associated with coloring are all reminiscent of childhood experiences - the smell of crayons, the delight of color, the image coming to life - and they often promote a feeling of comfort by allowing us to momentarily take refuge from our day-to-day responsibilities.

These experiences of coloring also demonstrate the power of art to tap into our imaginations, memories, thoughts, and emotions. The process of coloring and making a picture feels satisfying and even induces an experience of mastery or pride. It is in these qualities that the therapeutic impact resides.

However, although these experiences induced by coloring books may feel very good and therapeutic - which is momentarily beneficial - they lack the purpose and process of art psychotherapy.

There are two major differences between the therapeutic activity of coloring in coloring books and art psychotherapy. First, in art psychotherapy, we generate our own images instead of using prefabricated ones. Second, the imagery is created and understood within the context of a therapeutic relationship with a credentialed art psychotherapist.

The therapeutic relationship provides the interpersonal context within which we can revisit our personal narratives and an interpersonal alchemy by which we can deconstruct, reconstruct, and cocreate our own stories for the purpose of psychological insight, self-awareness, and, ultimately, personal transformation.

Coloring books are a fine pastime that can feel nourishing and therapeutic. They have introduced people to the value of activities based in the creative arts. But they are not the answer to a psychological/behavioral problem or a desire for personal growth and change.

And that is what's important when considering the difference between a therapeutic activity and a meaningful psychotherapy experience. Both obviously share similarities, but only one will have a lasting, positive effect.

Story first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on February 24, 2016