There is a new mantra among strung-out women looking to de-stress from the daily pressures of juggling work and family life: stay between the lines.
Yes, colouring for adults — taking a pack of pens or crayons and fastidiously filling in intricate patterns and pictures in books, which are being marketed at grown-ups — is a modern phenomenon.
A cursory glance at Amazon’s Top Ten bestselling books list proves the point. Though E. L. James is reigning with Grey, the latest money- spinner in her Fifty Shades series, you don’t have to look much further down the chart to find Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom — A Colouring Book Adventure, at number three, or The Mindfulness Colouring Book by Emma Farrarons, at number nine.
At one point last month, five out of the Top Ten titles were colouring-in books. For adults.
Publishers are reporting sales figures in the hundreds of thousands. Independent book publisher Michael O’Mara has built up a series of 28 titles and sold more than half a million copies so far, including The Can’t Sleep Colouring Book, which sold more than 2,000 copies last week.
And those thousands of sales reflect the many thousands of British women who are turning to colouring in.
The boom is being attributed to a modern preoccupation with nostalgia, combined with the fact that when it comes to relaxation, colouring has surprisingly scientific results.
‘It’s all about how colouring in helps alter brainwaves,’ says clinical psychologist Dr David Holmes.
‘When we’re alert and attentive, with the brain engaged in decision-making and problem-solving, it operates using beta brainwaves — precisely what’s needed when you need to think on your feet.’
But beta brainwaves require a great deal of mental energy and the brain can’t continue to effectively function in that mode. Just as a car engine overheats if you continually rev it, keeping the brain in high gear puts it under a level of pressure it cannot sustain healthily.
To relax, says Dr Holmes, you must shift down a gear so the brain starts using alpha brainwaves — a transition some people find difficult.
‘Unsurprisingly these people are the same ones who tend to go on to develop problems such as anxiety, depression and insomnia,’ he says.
If you were to get someone who predominantly operates in beta mode to start colouring in, and at the same time attach them to an electro-encephalogram (EEG) — a machine that records brain activity — Dr Holmes says you would soon start to observe these all-important alpha brainwaves take over.
‘That’s because colouring in is an ambient activity that gives the brain something simple to focus on, so it doesn’t become bored and frustrated, but without any complex thinking or planning to do,’ he says.
‘Also, those alpha waves are often associated with child brain activity; that nostalgic, childlike element to colouring in actually helps add to its effectiveness.’
Psychotherapist Abigail Eaton Masters started prescribing colouring books as homework to her clients last year, and uses one herself. ‘I have clients who were self-medicating with alcohol because they were hitting the end of the day in such a state of heightened anxiety they couldn’t sleep and so used booze to help them switch off.
‘They’re finding picking up a colouring book instead much more effective at helping them wind down and relax before bed and the quality of their sleep has improved. I’ve even given one to a client who was suffering so badly from anxiety that self-harming felt like her only release. Now, when she feels compelled to do that, she reaches for her book instead and focuses on colouring in until the urge passes.’
But it was a man who launched the craze — publisher Michael O’Mara, who hit upon the idea in 2012 during an editorial brainstorming meeting. ‘We produce some really beautiful colouring books for children, and someone cleverly suggested: “Why not try and do this for adults?”’ says senior editorial director Louise Dixon. ‘Everyone leapt on the idea.’
She says that some illustrators were ‘a bit sniffy’ when asked to contribute colouring in books for adults. Not so children’s illustrator and colouring book designer Richard Merritt, recently in Amazon’s Top Ten with Art Therapy Colouring Book.
‘I go into much more detail with these books than the ones I produce for children,’ he says.
‘They need to be elaborately patterned and highly detailed to keep an adult engaged.
‘At the start I consulted with a psychologist who explained that symmetry and heavily patterned imagery is more appealing to the brain, so I always bear that in mind when I’m designing a new page.
‘Funnily enough, when I’m drawing I seem to go into auto-pilot. The patterns just seem to flow.
‘So even that side of these books has turned out to be a very relaxing process.’