Jigsaw puzzling against anxiety, depression, and more

‘It sorted me right out after an interview knockback.’

‘I came to most of my insights subconsciously whilst doing a jigsaw puzzle. It was meditative.’

‘All I wanted to do was come home and get on with my puzzle.’

Sold. I nipped down to a local charity shop the other week, to cast my net for a jigsaw puzzle. I’d sought advice on the best approach for procurement. Charity shops I was told. BUT MAKE SURE THE PIECES ARE IN A SANDWICH BAG, my jigsaw mentor insisted. The relative merits of patterns versus pictures were also discussed; as were post-procurement jigsaw methods. For example, whether or not to look at the cover whilst ‘puzzling’.

I came home with Handsome Frank’s ski resort. And it delivered.

Mindful jigsaw puzzling: an antidote to anxiety and depression

The process of doing a jigsaw puzzle is, intrinsically, a mindful one. By this I mean awareness is brought to direct experience in the present moment. Given that anxiety and depression are invariably linked to difficult feelings about the past or future, mindfulness as an antidote has been the talk of town for quite some time. So, ‘puzzling’ is also a balm for these mental health problems.

Dr Rangan Chatterjee, author of ‘Feel Better in 5’, also advocates immersing yourself in a jigsaw puzzle for 5 minutes at a time as a way of bringing yourself completely into the present moment.

The science: why puzzles are prescribed

According to a 2007 study of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective, when we are mindful as when doing a jigsaw (or painting, reading, or listening to music perhaps) we are using a brain network that is (unsurprisingly) called the ‘direct experience’ network. Most of the time, however, we are using an alternative network, called the ‘default’ or ‘narrative’ network, when we are planning for the future or ruminating about the past, for example. As Dr David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work puts it, ‘there’s nothing wrong with the default network, the point here is you don’t want to limit yourself to only experiencing the world through this network.’

Each network – default and direct experience – attunes to different kinds of information. The oft-neglected or underused ‘direct experience’ network – exercised when doing a jigsaw puzzle – yields visual and sensory information pertinent to our mental health. The more we use this network, the more we will be able to choose to do so, rather than automatically use our default networks. For example, we can choose to be in the moment and focus on the visual details of that (damn) piece we are missing; or we can think about what is on our work schedule tomorrow. Puzzles can expand our choices and ability to engage with the wider world.

Further, the author of Mindfulness on the Go, Anna Black, highlights that the area of the brain that activates the stress reaction – the amygdala – is less active in those people practising mindfulness, through doing a puzzle for example. This is because mindfulness activates the body’s internal calming system.

Greater self-awareness – and improved relationships – from a puzzle?

Doing a jigsaw puzzle confronts one with their relationship to patience. In the modern world, much of our experience – and now expectation – is of immediate gratification. Jigsaw puzzling is the antithesis of this. So far, I’ve been dipping in and out of this puzzle for a week and a half, and am nowhere near finished. I’m good with that: cultivating patience could help me in a myriad of ways, including, of course, in relationships.

One’s approach to a puzzle could facilitate other valuable learning, too. For instance, in the process I discovered I was a bit of a wildcard, sticking pieces all over the shop initially, then coming to some order later on. A trial and error kind of puzzler/person. I have myself down as quite a careful character, so was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t so ‘neat’ here. Others are slower and more deliberate – strategic? Perfectionist? What is/would be your ‘puzzling’ vibe? And, if this is the approach to take more generally, is this helpful to you/how you want to be.

The activity invites me to shimmy up to another self-awareness biggie: how do I value a process versus an outcome? Some puzzlers savour their masterpiece at the end; others couldn’t care less for the finished product. This very concept – journey versus destination – is one that I discuss with clients on a regular. Valuing a process rather than coveting mainly or only an outcome speaks of health to me, not least because it keeps us somewhat in the present. Again, this could be particularly helpful for those suffering with anxiety or depression.

Not puzzling but dazzling

Surely we are then agreed that jigsaw puzzling is ridiculously healthy – and empowering – an activity? And you don’t have to persuade yourself to step outside, spend a fortune (my baby set me back £2), or even utter a word.

4 Replies to “Jigsaw puzzling against anxiety, depression, and more”

  1. I started doing regular jigsaws at the start of lockdown and couldn’t agree with your post more. It’s a very meditative process and slows my anxious brain right down. I’ve done about 50 this year – I started with coastal scenes that made me feel as though I was somehow travelling again – and sometimes listen to podcasts while I’m doing them. It’s a habit I’ll be carrying on when life goes back to ‘normal’.

    1. Hi! Thank you very much for this – my apologies for the delay, I somehow missed it. I love that idea of a jigsaw scene transporting you .. I’m tempted to seek a ‘destination’ puzzle myself..

  2. As a coach and just as a friend I have suggested puzzling to various people and sometimes lent puzzles (high trust required here not to lose bits!). There is something powerful about them as you say. I find it important to like the picture – despite the fact that the process is all important, not the outcome.Actually the neuroscience of puzzling is very interesting; one academic study found a clear contribution to neuro ‘health’ and aging. There is also something I haven’t got to the bottom of yet – something about quietly creating order (of a pile of bits) that calms the brain during crisis or transition. Perhaps it is just the amygdala calming that you describe. Very interesting, thank you.

    1. And thank you for your thoughtful comment! My apologies for the delay in responding. I also find it important to like the picture.. That study sounds interesting – thanks for mentioning.

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