What do you think when you hear the words “coloring book”? What about crayons? Markers? Being a little kid? If your thoughts only go to the good ol’ days of your childhood, then you need to do some rethinking. Coloring books aren’t just for kids anymore! In fact, they seem to be infiltrating the book market in a big way. You can’t step into a Barnes & Noble without being confronted with a display of coloring books made for those of us who have long since left the kiddie table. And it’s not a bad thing; actually, it’s quite the contrary. Most coloring books out there for grownups are advertised as art therapy intended to relieve stress and focus the mind on the present. But what exactly are the benefits of setting aside time to color in some pretty pictures?

Well, for starters, coloring gets your brain to focus. Have thoughts that race around the galaxy and back? Set up shop with the coloring tool of your choice, and let your mind slow down. Taking the time to choose the colors for your designs or pictures actually hones your brain’s ability to concentrate. Coloring inside the lines requires your full attention, so imposing, stress-inducing thoughts about past or the future get left in the dust. Coloring lets you forget your worries for a little while and live completely in the present. Think of it this way: For every worry that keeps you from moving forward, you have an outlet to put those worries on a shelf and pick them up later. Just pop a coloring book or a few loose-leaf coloring sheets in your backpack and there’s a study period filled with worry-free fun — that’s actually helping your mental health.

“But the pictures are so simple!” you might be thinking. “Won’t they be boring?” The short answer: No.

Want the long answer? As I said before, coloring books are having a moment in the book market. This includes coloring books that are specifically targeted at more mature audiences, meaning they are more complex than your simple line art of a Disney princess (not that those aren’t fun to color, too, because let’s face it, they are). Grown-up coloring books have a whole slew of intricate designs and themes that will keep you busy for hours. There are tons of different books to choose from, and they all boast patterns that require your full attention.

If you’re tempted to skip these more complex coloring pages entirely in favor of some throwback favorites though, think again. It turns out, difficult patterns are not only age-appropriate, they are recommended by mental health experts to reduce stress. The repetitive motions you make when you are filling in a pattern turns on your brain’s autopilot mode. It’s kind of like in a dystopian novel where everyone has the same nine-to-five job that numbs their minds, but instead of soul-crushing hard labor it’s super fun coloring time. The bottom line is coloring gives your mind a break from all of your outside stressors. It’ll be too busy trying to stay in the lines to even consider anything else.

Now that we’ve got the basics of why coloring is awesome down, it’s worth mentioning that while bringing back the childhood feels with crayons and makers can help with excess stress and anxiety, it isn’t an end-all, be-all cure for mental illness. Art therapy is widely used in the field of psychology as a tool to help manage stress, along with other coping methods. Even as a college student, my counselor encourages me to take time out of my schedule to color! If, however, your stress and anxiety are severe, it may be best to talk to a professional (like a counselor or psychologist) who can give you other coping mechanisms. You can even ask them if incorporating coloring into your life is something that will work for you when you add in other tools to manage your anxiety!

Whether you’re experiencing a little extra stress as you study for a big test or struggle with a more pervasive kind of anxiety, finding fun ways to help manage your stress is key, and let’s face it: Coloring is fun as heck. Nothing is better than escaping reality for a while and jumping back to seven-year-old you. There are tons of coloring books for you to choose from, so pick your favorite and start coloring. You will never go back.

Images via iStockPhoto and here.