Simple activities, such as drawing and coloring, may yield both mental health and cognitive benefits for veterans, according to a new study conducted by Dr. Tracy Alloway, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Florida.
The study, in collaboration with UNF psychology graduate student Jourdan Rodak and psychology undergraduate student Michaela Rizzo, explored the use of coloring and drawing in veterans with and without self-reported Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms. Previous research on the benefits of coloring have focused on samples comprised of undergraduate students or children rather than a population who might suffer from anxiety disorders.
The UNF researchers recruited veterans ages 21 to 49 through UNF’s Military and Veterans Resource Center. They were given surveys of anxiety and perceived stress as well as a verbal working memory task, where they had to remember numbers in backwards order. Veterans were divided into two groups (PTSD and non-PTSD) based on their responses to a Primary Care PTSD Screen, designed for use in primary care settings.
The results of this research, recently published in the journal of Mental Health & Prevention, indicated an improvement in working memory, the ability to remember and process information, in veterans with and without PTSD symptoms after drawing. Previous research has looked at related art activities, such as doodling, as a way to maintain attention to a task and improve memory. However, this is the first study to explore the potential cognitive benefits of drawing.
“The lack of structure in drawing requires additional cognitive resources to plan their art and take steps to accomplish what they want to achieve creatively within a given time limit,” said Alloway.
Veterans with self-reported PTSD symptoms also showed decreased self-reported anxiety and stress after coloring a mandala—a geometric pattern—for 20 minutes. These mental health benefits were not found when the veterans were given 20 minutes to draw.
“One explanation for the reduction in stress and anxiety may be because coloring a symmetrical image like a mandala can induce a state of mindfulness, which refers to an awareness or attentional focus of being in the present moment,” said Alloway.
PTSD is a debilitating anxiety disorder that can occur after someone has experienced a traumatic event in their life. While PTSD doesn’t affect everyone who has experienced a traumatic event, it can develop after single exposure to trauma. The national prevalence rate is approximately 7 to 8 percent; however, veterans have PTSD rates ranging from two to almost four times higher than the general population.
Given the high prevalence of PTSD in veterans, it’s important to consider self-directed ways to reduce some of the negative mental health symptoms, such as anxiety and stress. Those with PTSD also typically show working memory deficits. Thus, practical and easy-to-execute strategies, such as drawing, may be a useful way to enhance working memory. Benefits of improved working memory include better planning skills, goal-directed behavior and better multi-tasking skills.
For more information about the study, click here.