Still stressed out, even though you’ve tried deep breathing, workouts and meditation?

Grab your kids' crayons or pick up a pack at the store. Adult coloring is a booming trend, fueled by the release of numerous coloring books for. Done right, it can reduce stress and anxiety and maybe make you happier, researchers say. 

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Meditation on paper

Obviously, coloring takes you back to the carefree days of childhood, says Tim Kasser, PhD, professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, who has researched the topic. But there's more to the story. "It's fun to color, and you can't be having fun and be anxious at the same time very easily,'' Kasser says.

Coloring combines some elements of art therapy, such as coloring a form, with inducing a meditative state when you concentrate on a task or experience that soothes you, Kasser says. 

Structured coloring of a predesigned illustration helps people calm down when they have strong emotions or are working through trauma, says Lacy Mucklow, an art therapist in Washington, D.C.

"I think it helps them to calm down because it gives your brain and your hand something to focus on that's very specific," says Mucklow, author of the forthcoming Color Me Stress Free and two other adult coloring books.

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Coloring in the lines 

Just grabbing some crayons and paper and coloring what you want, known as free-form coloring, may not be as effective in reducing stress as coloring a pre-designed form, research has found.

To test which kind of coloring is better at reducing anxiety, Kasser and his then-student, Nancy Curry, assigned 84 college students to color free form or to color a mandala or a plaid geometric design. Mandalas are symmetrical, intricate figures used as meditative objects in spiritual traditions.

Students in each group were assessed for anxiety, then asked to color for 20 minutes. They were re-assessed for anxiety. Those who colored the mandalas had the most stress reduction, followed by those who colored the plaid designs. Free-form coloring, in this study, produced no anxiety relief, Kasser reported in the journal Art Therapy. The original study was replicated in 2012 by other researchers, with the same conclusions.

In other research, experts have found that children who created a mandala on an iPad were less stressed when undergoing a needle stick needed for their medical treatment than those who did not do so. Other researchers found that college students facing final exams who were given an opportunity to color or create other art were less anxious than those who did not do so.

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"What the structured coloring does is engage people in something that is pre-organized for the person that helps them to focus even more on something that is different," Kasser says. It's similar to telling your kids "No, don't do that," he says, and then suggesting a better, alternative behavior.

How to get started 

To try it yourself, buy an adult coloring book or download for free the Stress-Free or Happy coloring patterns, courtesy of illustrator Angela Porter, author Lacy Mucklow and Race Point Publishing,

You can also create your own do-it-yourself structure, Kasser says. He's done the latter. "I've pulled out a protractor and ruler," he says. "I had been drawing my own mandalas for years." So when his student asked him to mentor her research project, he knew there was validity to her hypothesis, he says.

"I wasn't doing it [the coloring] to be less anxious," he says of his own coloring pastime. "It was an interesting activity for me to draw these mandalas. I almost always did it at the end of the day," he says, so it was probably his way to unwind.

Coloring shouldn't be confused with traditional clinical art therapy, says Mucklow. "Coloring definitely has therapeutic benefits, but it is still different from how art therapy is conducted with clients and should not be substituted for treatment," Mucklow says. "Coloring is great for everyday maintenance, but not for more serious matters," which require professional help.

Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles journalist specializing in health, behavior and fitness topics.