Staying Between The Lines

Lauren Pearce roadtests a series of adult colouring books designed to help with anxiety. Unsurprisingly, they don’t work.

Ang Collins Mandala

Walk into any bookstore, and you’ll see a display of colouring books, absurdly far away from the children’s section, complete with a sign that promises you the ability to “Colour away your anxieties!” Adult colouring books are the latest instalment in the soul-sucking mindfulness movement, which was lifted from Buddhist thought and secularly popularised by John Kabat-Zinn.

‘Thought’ is the operative word there; ‘mindfulness’ techniques have moved far beyond both their original function and Kabat-Zinn’s teachings. Instead of being used as a reflection on one’s self and one’s physical place in the universe, mindfulness is taught as a breathing exercise which magically relieves everything from mild anxiety to psychosis and drug addiction. It has become ammunition for the anti-psychiatry movement, along with many studies that claim that counting your breaths is just as effective for treating depression as monitored medication regimes. If you’ve never seen one of these, flip open The Daily Telegraph, I’m sure there’s a few there.

A world where you can naturally treat your own mental health issues without medication or expensive psychiatrist appointments is a nice one to imagine. It would be a reality for some, but presenting it as a fix-all solution to even the most severe psychological problems is absurd at best, and deadly at worst.

However, I would concede that the best way to treat mild anxiety and stress is distraction, and colouring seems to provide that for people. For this review I picked up The Mindfulness Colouring Book by Emma Farrarons (Pan Macmillan) and Animal Kingdom: a colouring book adventure by Millie Marotta (Batsford). Marotta’s world is intricate and beautiful on its own, and makes me wonder if my yonks-old Derwents are worthy of destroying such beautiful pieces. Farrarons’ book is for the less artistically inclined, with simpler patterns that lends themselves to hurried or occasional activity.

My first session with the books did not go well. Sharpening all of my old pencils proved to be the most relaxing activity. I spent twenty minutes freaking out over which colours to use, and then spent the next half-hour wondering if I was somehow doing this wrong.

Farrarons urges in the introduction to her book to “be mindful” but in that first session I could barely concentrate on anything that wasn’t making sure the blue pigment hit the page at an equal pressure. Sometimes my mind strayed and I thought about how I can write about the colours thing in a way that is funny and not at all sad.  I do two rows of circles before I give up, have a drink, and go to bed.

In his somewhat satirical essay Cupcake Fascism: Gentrification, Infantilisation and Cake, Tom Whyman asserts that most middle-class consumers are infantilized subjects, and products are produced to target this infantilisation. He does this through the lens of the cupcake, which becomes the vehicle for “nice fascism”. The act of sitting down to colour-in is infantilising, and it’s ‘nice’, just as the idea of meditating your hallucinations away without the big bad pills is ‘nice’. And paying $14.99 for a book of scribbles is an inherently middle-class privilege, as is—even with Medicare subsidies–seeking decent psychiatric care.

I persisted with the books for a week. I tried to work for substantial amounts of time, but whenever I sat down to do my colouring-in, I felt as if I was wasting time that could have been better spent on other things. I didn’t happen to finish a complete A5 page over a week. Each book has about 70 of them, so at least this is an activity with longevity.

I’m not about to throw away my Lexapro, but I can see how very mild anxiety can be relieved through the distraction of colouring. Some people listen to music, some people read, or play video games, and some people colour-in. But is colouring books the next great mental health revolution? Only for the only-slightly-distressed middle-income earners that have a great deal of spare time to waste that grace bookshops these days anyway.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

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