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Colors and Mental Health

By: Maddie Hatfield

“Light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of color… Color itself is a degree of darkness.” 
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The purpose of my Catalyst Conference project is to bring attention to how colors affect the mental health side of society. I thought about this topic after personally describing my emotions and feelings in color when I couldn’t find the words to express how I felt. After researching a lot about color theory and the psychological effects of color and mood, I decided to translate my research and my ideas into a catalyst conference. Beyond my own observations and experiences, I sent out a survey to my school community, asked teachers and teammates, how they felt a color not only affected them but also what colors they see when they think of a certain mental health abnormality. I have broadened my research to deepen my understanding of color theory by researching how colors can influence how buyers make purchases, how seeing colors affect the body, and why colors are important to our minds. After watching this TedTalk on the Language of Color and the basic color theory, I felt inspired to pursue my interest in color theory. If people can choose the clothes that they wear, the products they buy, and associate moods with color, why can’t we describe the symptoms of mental health conditions with color? I’m extremely interested in the commonalities people share when they think of color. While my topic includes a large demographic of people, my hope is that by bringing color into the large pool of mental health, we can begin to express how a person is really feeling and show empathy and positivity surrounding the colors they feel.


My hope is that this topic will bring awareness for people to consciously associate colors with emotions, moods, and feelings so that people will be able to pinpoint how they’re feeling and why they feel the way they feel when they can’t put it into words.

When kids go through the national curriculum for ages 2-4, they are taught simple colors and their associations like the grass is green and the sky is blue. As we get older we are then taught that the color blue can represent sadness by people saying they “Feel blue”. As we progress through our age, we begin to discover our unique styles by choosing the clothes we wear. Some people may prefer to dress in all black while others choose to wear bright colors. Studies show that there is a tie between mood, brain function, behavior, to the colors we see.

But how does color really affect your psyche and your body? According to my research, different colors subconsciously make you feel different ways. For example, red makes your heart beat faster and increases your ability to make quicker decisions, while blue slows down your heart rate and helps you physically calm down. This fact was helpful for railway stations in Japan where there was a severe increase in suicide rates. After installing blue lights at the rail stations, Japan saw a 74% decrease in suicides. Also according to color theory and moods, yellow’s effect can increase your appetite but when used in an excessive amount, yellow can cause an anxious feeling. This would make sense considering the majority of cautionary signs are yellow and red. In a survey I sent out to my school community, approximately 70% of the respondents considered anxiety to be associated with the colors yellow and red. Similarly, 90% of the participants responded with blue, navy, or black to be associated with depression. Part of this could be because of societal statements made about moods but what about when it comes to other aspects of mental health?

Survey Results:

Depression– 90% blue/navy/black

Anxiety– 70% red/yellow

Eating disorders– 77% green/yellow

PTSD– 45% red/black 12%purple

Bipolar Disorder– 53% Secondary colors

Phobias– 51% red/yellow/black 16% green

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder– 54% white/blue

Suicide– 95% red/black

So what do these colors mean? In my Abnormal Psychology class, our section of anxiety was paired with phobias. It makes sense that the colors people responded with anxiety for was similar to the colors people paired with phobias. For PTSD, 45% of respondents associated the condition with red and black, the colors that were also associated with suicide. Eating disorders were green and yellow by the majority of respondents, is this because green is normally associated with disgust and yellow is a color that is associated with appetite? That’s why I chose this topic for my catalyst conference, in hopes of discovering commonalities that people associate between color and moods, mental health, and in general day-to-day life. 

Based on typical color theory, colors are given common associations similar to how my color survey worked.

Personally, I have learned to associate emotions, stories, and feelings with color. Normally, I will picture a color that I am feeling which then makes me question why I feel or see that color so I can work backward to understand why I feel the way I feel. In my English classes, whenever I write stories I conclude by highlighting in the color I feel is associated with the mood of the paper. By connecting my emotions and feelings with color, it helps me trace back to the root of the feeling I’m experiencing. That is what the goal of this Catalyst Conference is; to get people to consciously be aware of how they feel with colors rather than feeling challenged by defining an unknown feeling with words.

DISCLAIMER: color is a broad topic. Just because your favorite color is blue doesn’t mean you are a sad person. The goal is to discover what you are feeling and why based on the color you visualize. Use color as a creative outlet to express and understand how you feel. Here’s the link to my survey below.

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/H9MVPKG

To create this presentation, I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and build something that had a lot of meaning to me. Granted we all may not see color the same, color can be a personal cure for anything if we absorb it and utilize it properly. I believe color can be used to expand our coping skills and nurture a depth and knowledge by engaging how a color presents itself to us when we feel a certain way. What you can do with color is limitless. Try to start defining your emotions, stories, thoughts, or struggles with color. Ask yourself what color you think defines how you feel momentarily and allow yourself to reflect on the activities, interactions, or experiences that made you feel that color.

Works Cited:

Boyatzis, Chris & Varghese, Reenu. (1994). Children’s Emotional Associations with Colors. The Journal of genetic psychology. 155. 77-85. 10.1080/00221325.1994.9914760.

Cao, Jerry. “12 Colours and the Emotions They Evoke.” Creative Bloq. September 27, 2018. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.creativebloq.com/web-design/12-colours-and-emotions-they-evoke-61515112.

Ciotti, Gregory. “The Psychology of Color in Marketing and Branding.” Entrepreneur. April 13, 2016. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/233843.

Cherry, Kendra. “Can Color Affect Your Mood and Behavior?” Verywell Mind. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://www.verywellmind.com/color-psychology-2795824.

“Color Theory: Marketing, Branding, and the Psychology of Color.” ConceptDrop. May 24, 2018. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://conceptdrop.com/blog/60-color-theory-the-psychology-of-color-marketing-and-branding/.

“Psychological Properties Of Colours.” Colour Affects. Accessed April 09, 2019. http://www.colour-affects.co.uk/psychological-properties-of-colours.

S. Cimbalo, Richard & L. Beck, Karen & S. Sendziak, Donna. (1978). Emotionally Toned Pictures and Color Selection for Children and College Students. The Journal of Genetic Psychology. 133. 303-304. 10.1080/00221325.1978.10533389.

“The Surprising Effect of Color on Your Mind and Mood.” Psychology Today. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/people-places-and-things/201504/the-surprising-effect-color-your-mind-and-mood.

Westland, Stephen. “Here’s How Colours Really Affect Our Brain And Body, According to Science.” ScienceAlert. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://www.sciencealert.com/does-colour-really-affect-our-brain-and-body-a-professor-of-colour-science-explains.

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COMMENTS: 8
  1. April 26, 2019 by Lizzie Nash

    Maddie! I love the creativity of your project and all of the information, and statistics that you have included! I think you did an amazing job of showing how different colors can allow you to feel different things! I hope that I can be more aware of this in my own life and start to notice some of these color patterns at home!

    • April 28, 2019 by Maddie.Hatfield

      Thank you for your feedback! I really appreciate it!

  2. April 26, 2019 by Caroline.Cummins

    Maddie, this is super interesting for me. Great job. The amount of creativity and thought that you put into this project clearly shows through in this project. I did not know that colors could resemble something so strong and something so significant. You did a great job at showing how colors can express your different feelings. Overall, I really really loved this project. Great job!

    • April 28, 2019 by Maddie.Hatfield

      Thank you so much, Caroline!

  3. April 27, 2019 by Camille Neutz

    This is so amazing! I absolutely love the ideas and creativity behind your project! I think that the research that you conducted was interesting and support hour project extremely well. Great job.

    • April 28, 2019 by Maddie.Hatfield

      Thank you, Camille!

  4. May 01, 2019 by Sophie.Baron

    Maddie! This is amazing! This gave me a new perspective on the world and how I view life. Learning how colors have different meanings and can impact feelings and emotions is incredible! Well done!

  5. May 03, 2019 by Mia Crum

    Hey Maddie! This topic is so interesting; as someone who loves art/color theory and psychology this project immediately grabbed my attention. I liked that you included your school in your final project with that survey you sent out. The results of that survey were also very interesting. I really like the idea of expressing emotions/feelings with colors when its hard to find the words. Nice job!!

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