How Coloring Stressed Me Out

Coloring has been shown to soothe the mind. Except when it doesn’t.

Read more from our #ADULTCOLORINGBOOKS primer here.

I wasn’t planning to buy one for myself. My 16-year-old daughter, Esmé, had made a wish list of holiday gifts and at the top was, of all things, an adult coloring book. Apparently the news had trickled down to teens that putting (colored) pencil to paper and filling in pre-fab designs is no longer just for kids. Millennials may be trendsetters when it comes to technology, but leave it to my generation to revive an old-school pastime.

I liked the idea of my frazzled high schooler taking time out from homework to color. After all, a groundbreaking 2005 study found that anxiety levels dropped when study participants colored mandalas, those circular frames with geometric patterns inside. (Interestingly, according to the study, doodling did not have the same stress-cutting effect.) I’d also read that coloring has benefits similar to meditation, since both practices quiet the parts of the brain responsible for reasoning, planning, and self-conscious awareness.

What’s more, one of my friends swears by coloring books when she travels because they take her mind off everything that could go wrong with the flight. She told me over coffee recently that before a trip to Paris last summer, she picked a book up at an airport kiosk and colored all the way from Kennedy to Charles De Gaulle.

So off I went to hit up a nearby chain store that sells all manner of crafting supplies and was greeted by a rack the size of a city block displaying a dizzying array of coloring books. Themes ranged from animals and sprawling cityscapes to flowers and religion. Feeling slightly overwhelmed by the choices, I thumbed through a few. The intricate, often repetitive designs made me feel a little like the time someone slipped me a Mickey during a Simon & Garfunkel concert in Central Park.

I finally settled on one called “Brain Boosters” for my daughter, and took a few steps toward the checkout before doing an about-face. What the heck! I’ll get one for myself, too, I thought. After meditating every morning almost every day for a year, I’d gradually replaced the habit with compulsive email checking and figured perhaps a little coloring would reboot my resolve.

That night, I made a post-dinner date with “Floral Wonders” and borrowed an unopened tin of colored pencils from Esmé’s bedroom drawer. The 20 or so pristine pencils were organized by hue in shades of pink, red, green, yellow, blue, and (my favorite) purple, along with black and brown. They stood at attention, their sharp points ready to battle my overactive brain into quiet submission.

At 8:00 p.m. on the dot, I closed my bedroom door and settled down with a pattern that looked slightly less intimidating than some of the others. Still, the page contained at least a dozen intricate flowers of various shapes and sizes and more leaves and berries than I could count. My strategy: I would start with the upper left quadrant and work my way clockwise around the page. However, within the first 20 minutes, I decided I’d be better off coloring in all the leaves first, then the berries, and finally the flowers.

The only problem was that there were hundreds, make that thousands of tiny leaves and berries. Every time I thought I’d filled in every last one, others seemed to appear out of the ether. Ach!

I started to feel anxious. I was already in the middle of one seemingly never-ending project—a book I’d been ghostwriting for nearly a year—and my coloring book experiment was quickly beginning to feel like a second. The manuscript for the book was due last September but, for all sorts of reasons, I still had three chapters and a resource guide to write. I like the idea of a finish line. And when that line keeps moving out of view it’s not soothing, it’s stressful.

I continued coloring for a while. My hand started to cramp as I (unconsciously) grasped the pencils so hard, and several tiny splinters broke the skin on my index finger. Before long, the points on every last color were worn down to the nub. I went to look for a pencil sharpener, but I couldn’t find one anywhere in the apartment. Who doesn’t have a pencil sharpener? I thought, slamming the bedroom door shut when I returned after an exhaustive search.

I seemed to be caught up in a coloring labyrinth. At that moment, I flashed back to a childhood memory from when I was about six or seven—one that I’d long forgotten. I’d just gotten a Barbie coloring book, with drawings of her modeling some clothes. With my jumbo box of Crayolas spread out across the living room coffee table I carefully color-coordinated her sweater, skirt, pumps and purse in shades of pink, coral and red. At the last minute I decided the skirt should be plaid and began drawing in vertical and horizontal lines over the color. My fine-motor skills at that point were not on par with my fashion-forward vision and the resulting crooked tic-tac-toe board sent me into a complete meltdown. Despite much consoling from my mom, I vowed never to color again.

Clearly I’d forgotten that long ago promise. Now, years later, my attempt at artistic fulfillment was once again sending me over the edge.

When I checked, the digital readout on my clock said 11:30 p.m., and I still had half the flowers to finish. I was tired. Make that exhausted. And I had to be up early the next morning. But determined to leave no posy, leaf, or berry anemically pale, I soldiered on. My strokes became sloppier as I scratched the worn nubs haphazardly across the page, slipping outside the solid black lines more than once. Now I wasn’t just drowsy, I was furious—at myself—for ruining the work on which I’d already spent more than three hours.

I stopped for a moment, took a deep breath and attempted to put this ridiculousness into perspective. Hand cramps, splinters, and a panic attack? Really? I was so hell-bent on completing the page that I’d been willing to sacrifice sleep, serenity—and possibly my sanity—to get every last flower filled in. The point of a mindfulness practice, in case I’d forgotten, is to give your mind a rest, to learn to become a bystander to your thoughts, to observe them and then let them go. That’s not what was happening here. That realization, a deep understanding of the purpose of meditation, was more powerful than any relaxation a colored pencil could provide.

I laughed loudly and deeply for what felt like five minutes, releasing all the toxic emotions that my evening in search of Zen had churned up.

When I finished, at exactly 12:01 a.m., I was pleased enough with the end result to tear it from the coloring book, snap a photo, and post the multi-colored mayhem on Facebook with the message “Coloring relieves stress. Who knew?”

Another reason not to believe everything you read on social media.