Editor’s Note: This story was written by Faith Maciolek for Ithaculture, an Ithaca College student publication and is republished with permission.

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ITHACA, NY – Lauren Muldoon often sits and colors in a book of mandala designs she received from her mother. Even though the book is “75 percent full of ugly, ugly designs,” she is determined to finish all the pages so she can move on to the four or five other coloring books she has waiting for her.

“To me it isn’t really the images that I’m coloring, but the act of coloring,” Muldoon said. “The act of coloring has provided me with relaxation; a repetitive, mindless activity that I really don’t have to focus on or try doing.”

Muldoon, a senior communication, management and design major at Ithaca College, has dealt with anxiety and depression for most of her life—illnesses that have only gotten worse since coming to college.

While she had colored in high school occasionally, she attended traditional therapy while she was home. It wasn’t until this past summer that she turned to coloring more and more to help her relax at the end of a long or particularly stressful day.

Many people view art as a form of recreation, but it can also be used as a tool to help deal with serious mental health issues. Art therapy is a relatively new mental health profession. Clients, facilitated by an art therapist, use art media, the creative process and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reduce anxiety and more.

Professional art therapy is used in hospitals, schools, wellness centers and several other centers across the country and can also help people deal with trauma from combat, abuse or adverse health conditions such as cancer.

Emily Millen runs The Art Therapy Studio on South Fulton St. and helps clients work through a wide spectrum of issues—from eating disorders and self-harm to anxiety, identity and self exploration.

Millen said she thinks when people think of art therapy, they most quickly associate it with children and “people who are on the pervasive developmental/autism disorder spectrum.” However, most of her clients are teenagers and adults.

“I, in particular, love to work with teens and their families, as well as people exploring their identity to themselves and within relationships,” Millen said.

Millen took psychology courses in high school and quickly realized she was interested in learning “why people do what they do, [and] why they end up who they are.” She wanted find a career where she could help people—and also share her love for all things “arty.”

“I’ve always love art materials—the smell, the look, the endless possibilities. It just makes me so happy and excited,” Millen said. “I honestly still remember the first time I smelled the art room at my elementary school. I also remember spending a lot of time gluing cotton balls to construction paper that year.”

Millen happily added that the clients she sees do not always have a background in art; they are more so people looking to express themselves through artistic material. No artistic skills are necessary in order to benefit from art therapy.

“I actually wish art therapy was called something different—like ‘visual expression therapy,’ or ‘creating therapy’,” Millen said. “‘Art’ is a loaded word for a lot of us. A lot of us have wounds from our art being judged as not good enough. So we think art is elitist and that we cannot make it. Art therapy is not about that.”

Art therapy sessions utilize many forms of art, including drawing, collaging, painting, sculpting and doll making. Part of what makes art so soothing is a psychological concept called “flow,” also known as being in “the zone.” It is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

This kind of relaxation is what makes Muldoon look forward to coloring and what makes her want to share it with others. She brought her books and colored pencils with her to school, and soon after her friend and housemate Colleen O’Meara, who also suffers from anxiety, had purchased her own set as well.

“We now regularly color together while watching Netflix,” Muldoon said. “We don’t talk—just color.”

O’Meara, a senior integrated marketing communications major at Ithaca College, has tried several methods to help her cope with her anxiety, but she said none have worked as well as coloring.

“I started at the beginning of this semester when [Lauren] showed me her adult coloring book of mandalas,” O’Meara said. “She tore a page out for me, we shared her colored pencils and sat on my bed for two hours, focusing only on coloring inside the lines. I felt calm and centered.”

O’Meara now has several coloring books, from cityscapes to flower designs. She prefers the easy-to-follow geometric patterns of the mandalas and now colors at least two to three times a week.

Many adults are now coloring across the country as well as a form of stress relief. Adult coloring books have become a hot trend, with companies like Crayola releasing their own line of books. Both Millen and Muldoon see pros and cons to this.

Muldoon said she gets frustrated when people view coloring as “fun and trendy,” when it is something that she uses to help her cope with serious issues. She believes that “everyone wants to color for ‘therapy’, but not everyone truly understands the need for such therapy.”

She said, however, the growing trend has expanded the options of books available, and lessened the negativity surrounding adults who buy coloring books as being “childish” or a “loner.”

As an art therapist, Millen strongly believes in the power of using art materials to heal and soothe, and feels that it can be useful when paired with other coping methods.

“While [coloring] relieves anxiety, it does not address the root of the anxiety,” Millen said. “Like napping, the issue that causes the anxiety will still be there when you ‘return.’ I’d put coloring in the category of distraction—necessary, useful, and to be used as part of diverse toolbox of coping skills.”

Muldoon and O’Meara use this “tool” to calm anxious thoughts, and O’Meara is very thankful to have been introduced to coloring. It is something both women find comfort in.

“Yes, it’s true that sometimes when I break out my coloring book I really should be doing homework,” Muldoon said. “But at the end of a long, rough day, coloring is something I really look forward to doing.”

Millen believes there is something “profoundly healing” about art. She said it’s not about making things that look good—it’s about making things that very accurately manifest what her clients want to express. Her goal is to help them increase their expression so that they can get to a place of seeing what they made and say, ‘Yes! That’s it. There’s something about what I just made that just says what I can’t quite put into words.’

“‘Creating’ is a skill that translates to our relationships with ourselves, others, our jobs [and] our community,” Millen said. “Not only do I want people to color outside the lines, I want them to go entirely off the page and into the practice of creating their own unique vision as a life-long skill. To begin that process, we have to be brave enough to make our own mark on a blank page.”

For more information on Art Therapy services in Ithaca, visit http://www.thearttherapystudioithaca.com/

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.