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The Soothing Neuroscience of Coloring Swear Words

Well there's some evidence that swearing, in moderation, is good for you and may actually relive pain. A caution, though. If used too frequently, these words lose their emotional power and no longer help soothe. So save those pages for the really rotten days.
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"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." Ferris Bueller

2016-03-02-1456948884-9774543-IMG_0917.jpgPhoto courtesy of Emily Smolak

Life gets pretty hectic. Juggle a full time job, try to maintain a love life, remember to take Emma to soccer practice at 4 on Tuesdays (and 6 on Thursdays- don't forget!), pick up Jackson from his guitar lessons, get a healthy meal on the table before the baby melts down, feed the gecko, and tackle Mount Laundry on a semi-regular basis; this "to do" list begins to add up to the makings of an anxiety disorder. Throw a few wrenches into your plans, like a horrible boss, a parent's illness, or a spouse suddenly unemployed, and the delicate balance falls apart. Millions of people suffer from mental health problems, and many are prescribed pharmaceuticals that might somehow make everything better. While the drugs may work for a time, and are faster, cheaper, and more accessible than the long, laborious process of therapy, drugs are a crutch at best. As Linda Esposito says in this Psychology Today article, "Reducing anxiety is about making relaxation, healthy relationships, and meaningful experiences a daily priority."

Well, we might not be able to prioritize meaningful experiences in our lives on a daily basis (does packing lunches count as meaningful?!), but publishing companies have hit upon a way to force some of us to slow down and relax on a regular basis. Although many of us have been stealing our children's crayons for years, coloring books are leaving the playroom and landing on the coffee table... and the subjects aren't Dora and dinosaurs. Ranging from flowery patterns and favorite animals to swear words, the coloring books feature fine detail and small spaces to color in, and they are wildly popular. There are over 60 different types of adult coloring books offered through Barnes and Noble alone.

2016-03-02-1456948915-6867461-IMG_0927.jpgPhoto courtesy of Emily Smolak

So what gives? Why are these books so popular and why are they actually stress relieving?

Let's start with the art therapy. It's been known for a while that art is a wonderful, interactive therapy tool. What is art therapy and how does it work? Check out this video for a beautiful description of art therapy. And look how Syrian Refugees are being introduced to art therapy with spectacular results.

A licensed art therapist will take you through the creation process in a meaningful way and utilize these techniques to help address core issues. But even without a therapist guide, amateur artists find comfort in creating every sort of art from sand sculpture to cake decorating to jewelry making. Expressing a creative side, becoming consumed in a hobby, spending time on something solely for the fun of it- these things bring pleasure and joy through active engagement, in a way that Netflix bingeing may not. And lets' face it, if you're already overwhelmed by life, joining a weekly ceramics class may represent time, money, and scheduling conflicts that seem too daunting to serve as a stress reliever. A coloring book and a box of pencils are cheaper and can be ready and waiting for you whenever you want to make time for them. No special training is needed. No pottery wheel or easel or jewelry pliers. This is the epitome of simple creativity.

Now any artist, and probably many non-artists, will question the creative process of selecting a color to shade in a pre-drawn box. The old color-outside-the-lines descriptor of a creative thinker comes to mind here and skeptical eyebrows are raised. So maybe the creative process is limited. But perhaps that limit actually makes it that much more stress relieving. Julie Beck notes that "coloring offers that relief and mindfulness [of art therapy or doodling] without the paralysis that a blank page can cause." The limits of the coloring book provide relief from the paradox of choice- that phenomenon my father calls the "Chinese menu predicament"- the paralysis in decision-making that results from an overwhelming number of options.

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If we have a clearly defined task to accomplish and the capability of accomplishing it, then it is immensely satisfying to complete that project. Some of the key tenets of stress management are control and predictability. When we lack control over things in our life, they become stressful. The whims of middle management may have you sitting at your desk all day waiting for the next crisis to strike, but then you get home where you're the top of the management heap and you should be able to predict the crises and control your surroundings. But then your grade schooler brings home an announcement that she'll be featured in an assembly the next day and the toddler thwarts your plans of tidying the house, and suddenly your sense of control and predictability is gone again, and life descends into an overwhelming chaotic mess. But a little book where you get to make all the decisions on what color goes where as you unwind at the end of the day... suddenly you've found empowerment again, even in something trivial, and that moment can restore order to your overwhelmed mind.

There's also evidence that working with our hands to create something tangible is special to our brains.

Now, what about coloring those swear words?

Well there's some evidence that swearing, in moderation, is good for you and may actually relive pain. A caution, though. If used too frequently, these words lose their emotional power and no longer help soothe. So save those pages for the really rotten days.

Photos courtesy of Emily Smolak; see more on Instagram @emway.
Research and article assistance by Longwood student Carly Shaia.