I am a polyvagal junkie.
I imagine you are wondering, to what anatomical aspect of science does polyvagal refer?
My romantic partner snickers in a 13-year-old-boy sort of way at the word polyvagal because any body part that starts with the letters “vag” takes his mind to lovely sexual places. The dorsal branch of the vagus nerve does affect the body below the diaphragm but the vagus nerve is not part of the anatomy of the vagina.
Our vagus nerve is part of our parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that calms us down.
Oh, you may be saying, now I see why this theory might apply to the science of mindfulness. And you would be correct—understanding the varied ways our bodies can calm us down is useful in mindfulness.
Stephen Porges developed his Polyvagal Theory because of the different and somewhat antagonistic functions of the two branches of the vagus nerve. The fact that there are two branches and that each branch has different mechanisms of calming led to the use of the term polyvagal in his theory.
But what does all this have to do with adult coloring books?
I am a dance/movement therapist and the sudden existence and intense popularity of adult coloring books has fascinated me. With my clients I use freestyle drawing and coloring as dance therapy with a hand, and maybe an arm, and maybe a shoulder involved—if the expression is large.
I ask my clients what size paper they would like to use, a small office note pad, a traditional letter-sized paper or large art pads. The paper is a container for the emotional expression and thus the emotion itself. Drawing and dancing the emotion with our hands and arms gets the energy out of the body but contains it so that the emotion does not ricochet between us and others until we feel more in control of the sensations. Containing our experience visibly on the paper before us allows us to study it, make sense of it and decide if there is action we want to take based on the existence of these emotions.
When you look from the traditional children’s coloring books to the new adult coloring books, you’ll notice that the pages are dominated by small coloring windows. The area within which the adults work their writing utensils is much smaller than those in traditional coloring books. If you search online for “adult coloring books,” you see a good bit of talk about the tiny spaces. Adult coloring book enthusiasts testify to their calming effect.
Jenny Knappenberger says adult coloring books are relaxing and meditative. She says the small spaces challenge us and are good exercise for our hands. Adrienne from Cleverpedia talks about the creative opportunities for shading. But no one has yet theorized about why drawing in these small spaces creates calm.
My theory about the small spaces that are characteristic of adult coloring books comes from the interface of polyvagal theory and the work of Peter Levine, whose book Waking the Tiger (1997) explained a great deal about how the body processes trauma. It is no wonder that Porges’ polyvagal theory and Levine’s trauma work intersect in such a beautiful way because they have been friends for over thirty years, spending time discussing and refining their theories.
Levine explains that when our bodies go into dorsal vagal shut down (from the branch of the vagus nerve that serves the body below the diaphragm), we are in a dissociative state. You will recognize being in a dissociative state if you have ever been driving down the expressway and realized you zoned out and have not noticed the exit signs.
When we wake up from this dissociative state of shut-down, our bodies are designed to send us into a fight or flight response because chances are we need it. These autonomic nervous system responses are like those of other animals. We shut down because we feel trapped. If we see room for escape, fight or flight stress hormones shoot off to make escape more likely. You would recognize that jolt as the momentary freak-out that occurred because you realized you almost missed your exit.
Levine explains that if a predator has captured us, and we are most certainly going to die, this shut-down makes death less painful. There are not too many clearly identifiable predators in modern life, but we can feel trapped in many situations. We often can experience the fight or flight response, but because there is nothing to fight and nowhere to flee, our bodies go quickly into dissociative shutdown. With any glimmer of hope for escape, quick bursts of adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol send us back into fight or flight anxiety.
In our world, where we are required to ride in high-speed vehicles, it is understandable that we have developed this pattern of drifting into shutdown and then waking up with sudden shots of stress chemistry and then drifting back into shutdown. Brené Brown’s work encourages us to risk the vulnerability that is required in daring greatly which I equate to tolerating the anxiety of the fight or flight mechanism that occurs when we wake up from shutdown.
These days we need encouragement to come out of hiding because to come out of hiding can be so stressful. We are better able to tolerate the anxiety when we have ways to color our world as a manageable place in which to be awake.
When I do drawing and dancing therapy with my clients, I also let them choose between pastel crayons, wax crayons and colored pencils in that order. Those items (in that order) offer a continuum of choice that moves from the most loose and messy marking (pastels), to medium loose and messy (wax crayons) to the least loose and messy (colored pencils). Adult coloring books, with their tiny spaces, require colored pencils or fine-point colored markers.
Moving a tight writing utensil within a small space gives us a safe space to flow out the intense energy of stress hormones without that pointed fight or flight energy that threatens a sense of balance in our relationships. If we could color in an adult coloring book while we drove on the expressway, we could probably prevent road rage. But of course I am not really suggesting that! I can imagine the road signs: Texting and Adult Coloring While Driving is Illegal in this State. But it helps our state of being, so doing it at rest stops is a good idea.
Many coloring enthusiasts like to use their new-found stress management tool to deal with work dynamics. Our work environments can feel fast-paced like driving on the expressway. We may go into autopilot at work just like when we dissociate on the highway. Periodically, we can feel a jolt like the one we feel when we notice we almost missed our exit. We can feel flooded with anger at bosses and/or certainty that we need to flee to a different job, and we need to do it right then.
Pulling out the adult coloring book can channel the stress hormones of fight or flight and help us accept that only small changes are useful. Coloring in the small spaces can help us feel that small movement is at least possible. We can calm down and accept that no fly-off-the-handle storming into the boss’s office would produce beneficial results. As we color, we might experience some inspiration toward a realistic step that could improve a work-related problem.
Besides driving high-speed vehicles and driving our nervous systems full-throttle at our jobs, our intimate relationships can stir intense nervous system responses. The authors of Irrelationship encourage wake-up from shut-down. In their book, Borg, Brenner and Berry reach out to those of us who are hiding in our relationships as a way of avoiding the potential anxiety that can arise with true intimacy.
Adult coloring advocates pull out their coloring books during an intense interaction rather than storming out of the room. In coloring, they experience their ability to move despite the trapped feeling that was evolving during the interaction. Feeling the movement within small coloring spaces, intimate partners report increased ability to imagine small steps toward resolution.
Living in our modern world can stir a looming sense of life-threatening danger. We seem to have a need to explore small movement in our shrinking world. We need to remind ourselves that even though our options may feel limited, we are not trapped. As we move a marker or pencil in the small spaces provided in the adult coloring books, our breath can deepen, and we can experience that even in situations where we may feel trapped, there is space for aliveness.
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Author: Dee Wagner, MS
Image: Denise Chan/Unplash
Editors: Caitlin Oriel; Yoli Ramazzina