Dee Ledger can remember exactly when she found solace, if not salvation, after the death of her 10-week-old son. It is where she found it, and how, that surprised her: in a coloring book.
Ledger, a former English teacher and hospice chaplain, had always been able to use words and prayer to find peace in difficult times and to help others do the same. But after her son died in April 2011, she needed something more, something different, to calm her nerves and help soothe her grief. “I was looking for something quiet that could get rid of this restlessness,” she says, to help quell the churning thoughts that made it hard for her to focus or sleep.
Back then, coloring books weren’t the phenomenon they are today. Ledger found hers in a spiritual catalogue.
Now, of course, adult coloring books are ubiquitous, crowding bookstores and bestseller lists. Coloring-book groups have sprouted up everywhere — in libraries and cafes, on Facebook and Instagram.
In 2015, an estimated 12 million adult coloring books were sold in the United States, according to Nielsen Bookscan. There are adult coloring books for hipsters, “Dr. Who” fans, cat lovers, Taylor Swift devotees, and admirers of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — pretty much anyone with a niche interest and a need to relax. In other words, everyone.
“It’s easy to pooh-pooh coloring books as just another fad,” Ledger says. But maybe, she says, we shouldn’t be so dismissive: “Anything can be a fad, even prayer.”
For Ledger and others, coloring books offer a real elixir, a way of getting past hurdles — mental, physical or both — that can’t be replicated by more-traditional approaches.
Joanne Schwandes, a 67-year-old Silver Spring resident, says that coloring books have boosted her confidence in fine motor skills weakened by a tremor in her arm. A Virginia mother says that coloring has helped her stay calm in the face of her son’s violent behavior. On one Facebook coloring group, members share their creations along with their stories of healing — using coloring as a tool against self-harming or as a way to manage the effects of physical illness or fend off depression and other difficulties.
Coloring books work like other mindfulness techniques such as yoga and meditation, says Craig Sawchuk, a clinical psychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Such approaches work “almost like a volume knob to turn down the sympathetic nervous system, the stress response.” Coloring can help slow down heart rate and respiration, loosen muscles and stimulate the brain, he says. Coloring has a “grounding effect” he says, a benefit that can be amplified with deliberate focus on the process — “the gentle pressing of the crayon or pencil on the page, the texture of the paper across your hand, and the soft sounds of the coloring instrument moving back and forth in a rhythmic fashion,” he says.
Using coloring books to help relieve stress “is like learning a new habit,” says Sawchuk. “New habits are best learned when you set aside routine time each day to focus,” he says.
Although there have been no large clinical studies of coloring books, the benefits of coloring are comparable to those of mindfulness practices, he says, which have been studied. And coloring can help with more-severe problems beyond stress; Sawchuk spoke about one patient who used coloring books to stop an obsessive habit of pickiSawchukng at her skin.
Indeed, art therapists have been using coloring books for years. “There’s a self-soothing meditative benefit because you are doing the same motion over and over, especially with symmetrical drawings,” says Lina Assad Cates, a psychotherapist and board-certified art therapist in the District who uses coloring books as part of her practice. “The books help create boundaries — the literal boundaries of the lines and the metaphorical boundaries for drawing healthy boundaries in relationships. There’s also the potential benefit of just mastering something you’ve created.”
This reflects Ledger’s experience. “As a pastor, I am fascinated by how easily coloring becomes meditative,” she says. “By selecting colors and working with the design, I find that I can lose myself in ways that are healing and creative.”
Ledger, who lost her husband to cancer in 2013, less than a year after giving birth to twins, spends about three hours a week coloring, mostly at night, when her children are asleep and she can sit quietly in the kitchen of her Rockville home and gather her thoughts. (Her sons, Griffin and Eli, have their own coloring books.)
Now pastor at Bethesda United Church of Christ, Ledger approaches her hobby with a mix of pride and self-deprecating humor. “I’m not an artist,” she says as she spreads out her works on her bed. Some she keeps in a hardback binder, others in a small journal that fits in her purse. In a small office carved out of a second bedroom, her pencils and markers are neatly organized in plastic containers that once held Cascade detergent.
Ledger, 46, has colored her way not only through grief but also through physical pain. When she had back surgery a few years ago, she asked the doctors to make sure that the intravenous lines were in her right arm so that she could use her left, her coloring arm, as soon as she was awake. “I literally colored in the recovery room at the hospital,” she says.
Still, she understands that coloring is neither a panacea nor for everyone. “If someone was grieving, I wouldn’t just pay a visit on them and say, ‘You should color, and that would take your grief away,’ ” she explains. “I don’t believe that.” But coloring has given her a sense of power in a life that has spun wildly off plan.
“Being able to sit there and actually control that little world” inside a coloring book has been “really instrumental in my starting a new chapter of my life,” she says. “I don’t know if you ever fully heal from loss and trauma. But coloring has definitely helped me start a new life again.”