The collision of my professional life and motherhood has been a bit of a bumpy road. It’s a bit cliché, of course, but nothing prepares you for parenthood. Fumbling through sleepless nights, difficulties in soothing a crying baby, the angst that comes from letting go of a life before motherhood, these were all things that I was somewhat expecting.

What I was not expecting were the tantrums, rigidity, extreme sensitivity, separation anxiety, perseveration, and meltdowns that were still happening upwards of 5 years old. As a psychologist, this was especially confusing since I am well versed in child development literature, attachment theory, healthy communication strategies, and effective methods of parenting.  Yet, despite copious research, knowledge of the brain, and no shortage of parenting books, I was challenged to find a way to help my son regulate himself when an emotional tsunami came our way.

THE ART OF COLORING

After one failed technique after another, we landed on coloring by happenstance.  Initially, I was just grateful to find a “play” activity that he and I equally enjoyed doing together.  Don’t get me wrong, I love being with my son, but a part of me was always left uninspired by LEGOS, dump trucks, paw patrol, and the like.

The more we colored together, the more I noticed that the activity seemed to soothe him and he would delight in improving his ability to stay within the lines.  Coloring not only calmed him, but was becoming something that helped him to feel good about himself.  It was not lost on me either that beyond finding an activity that I finally enjoyed, it was relaxing and meditative for me as well.  The joy and satisfaction I derived out of creating something beautiful seemed to be the icing on the cake and what I thought was the end of the story, as far as coloring was concerned.

Coloring Isn’t Just for Kids

Enter my professional life.  As a psychologist, my therapy with clients is insight oriented, values driven, and steeped in principles that utilize the mind to elicit brain change.  I emphasize helping clients change their relationship to uncomfortable emotions and experiences rather than avoiding, suppressing, or simply trying to distract themselves.

I believe that, as a culture, we need to do a better job of building emotional resilience, strengthening one’s muscle, so to speak, to tolerate being uncomfortable without acting out.  Needless to say, it wasn’t my practice to recommend a technique, like coloring to distract, because I feel it misses the point.

I, wholeheartedly, believe this to be true AND yet sometimes being with the emotion or experience is too much.  Sometimes being immersed in it means a client will binge, ruminate, obsess, drink, or act out in some other way, even though they desperately want to change this behavior.  This is confusing to them and to loved ones, but when you understand what is happening in the brain, things begin to make a little more sense.

Simply put, we can’t make good use of the part of the brain that delays gratification, thinks about our long term goals, chooses what’s best for us, etc. if other parts of the brain are dysregulated (i.e. imbalanced because of too much fear, anxiety, cravings, stress, etc.).

Building a Bridge

This is where distraction and self-soothing come in and this is where the art of coloring answers both calls.  Calling to mind the soothing and self-regulating effects of coloring for my son, I was curious if the research supported my anecdotal experience.

Confirming what I suspected, the research is clear on the self-soothing and calming aspects of coloring. Encouragingly, it also shows its effectiveness in reducing stress and anxiety, as well as preliminary support for reducing depression. In addition, coloring can increase mindfulness, which is our focus of attention on the present moment.  This is an added bonus, as mindfulness inhibits mind wandering, reducing stress and stabilizing mood in the process.

The next time you’re met with the storm inside, try it, you may be surprised at the gift it brings.

You need to worry! While this may sound counterintuitive, we are actually hard wired for anxiety, as it ensures our survival.   Unfortunately, this well meaning mechanism can easily spiral out of control, with one anxious thought begetting another and another.  Perhaps this is why more people suffer from anxiety disorders than any other mental illness.

While we can’t (and wouldn’t) want to do away with anxiety entirely, there are things that we can do differently to help better manage the anxiety we experience.  Get my free guide here!

Clinical experience has shown that, ironically, it is often the patient’s very attempt to solve the problem that, in fact, maintains it.  The attempted solution becomes the true problem.  -Giorgio Nardone & Paul Watzlawick

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterized by recurrent obsessions and/or compulsions that are incredibly time consuming or cause marked impairment and distress.  Individuals with OCD recognize that the obsessions or compulsions are beyond excess and reason.  Surprising to many is the fact that either obsessions or compulsions, alone, are sufficient for a diagnosis, however, they commonly occur in tandem.  The obsessions and/or compulsions are incredibly time consuming and significantly interfere with an individual’s ability to carry out normal day-today activities.

Obsessions constitute persistent, thoughts, ideas, images, or impulses that feel intrusive, causing significant distress or anxiety.  These obsessions feel beyond the individual’s control.  Thoughts of contamination, repetitive doubts, need for particular order, sexual imagery, and horrific/aggressive thoughts are among the most common obsessions.

Compulsions are repetitive behaviors, designed to reduce anxiety or distress.  Hand washing, checking, counting, hoarding, cleaning, and praying are commonly seen compulsions, in which the individual feels driven and compelled to perform.

American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth  Edition, text Revision. Washington, DC American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder can occur after an individual experiences an extreme traumatic event or an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury to oneself or someone else.  Fear, helplessness, and/or horror are experienced as a result.  The individual continually re-lives the event via flashbacks, memories, nightmares, and/or intrusive thoughts, images, or perceptions.  Avoidance of associated stimuli, physiological reactivity, psychological distress, and numbing are also present.  Other symptoms include an inability to recall aspects of the trauma, avoidance of  associated stimuli, feelings of detachment, hypervigilance, insomnia, difficulties concentrating, exaggerated startle response, and impaired social and occupational functioning.

The above symptoms must persist for more than one month.  If the symptoms are of shorter duration, then a diagnosis of Acute Stress Disorder is made.

American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth  Edition, text Revision. Washington, DC American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

Related Blogs

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Excessive anxiety and worry, that occurs more days than not and persist for at least six months, constitute the core features of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  The worry and anxiety feels difficult to control and is about a number of different things.  In addition, physical symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and disturbances in sleep plague the individual.   Social and occupational functioning are significantly impaired. 

American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth  Edition, text Revision. Washington, DC American Psychiatric Association, 2000.