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Seniors (and Families) Coping With Stress and Isolation with Jigsaw Puzzles

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By Kathy Finley, Director of Family Services at Concierge Care Advisors

I remember back when I was young in the cold snowy winters of Western New York State, we would have a card table up with a jigsaw puzzle on it.  I would alternate between sitting down for an hour to really focus on it, and later I would walk by and just put one puzzle piece in. You need to understand that I am dating myself now because at that time we only had three US TV channels and one Canadian TV channel to watch. “Cable”? Isn’t that something you use to tow something behind a car or truck?

So now, I am in a different sort of isolation with the Covid 19 pandemic. I still love jigsaw puzzles and decided to do some more digging on how this activity can help with the stress, isolation, and mental health during these challenging times.

Jigsaw puzzles have been around since the 1700s and have evolved from hand-cut wooden educational tools to a huge industry for children and adults. They have provided education and hours of quiet time. What studies are now showing is that these “toys” have lasting benefits both to our health and basic well-being. Even starting as children, these puzzles help with fine motor skills and prepare them for reading by seeing patterns in the puzzle pieces. Research is now showing benefits of carrying this puzzle solving activity into adulthood. The notable MacArthur study showed that keeping the mind active with jigsaw puzzles and other mind-flexing activities can actually lead to a longer life expectancy, a better quality of life, and reduce our chances of developing certain types of mental illness, including memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s Disease (by an amazing third).

Ok, so how does this work in our brains? Experts say most likely it is due to the simultaneous use of both sides of the brain. The left-brain hemisphere, the analytical/logical side, sees all of the separate pieces to sort and sequentially put them together. The right-brain hemisphere, the creative side, sees the “big picture” and works intuitively. Both types of thinking are required in order to successfully piece the puzzle together. In exercising both sides of the brain at the same time, we create actual “connections” between the left and right sides, as well as connections between individual brain cells. These connections increase our ability to learn, to comprehend, and to remember. In addition, completing a puzzle, or even just the successful placement of one piece, encourages the production of dopamine, a brain chemical that increases learning and memory.  The production of this chemical increases in the brain at the time when it is working on solving the jigsaw puzzle.

A jigsaw puzzle is a metaphor for life. Challenges we face with our jobs, relationships, health and a global crisis can leave us confused and overwhelmed. These challenges are like a fragmented jigsaw puzzle, with so many disconnected pieces and no clear starting point. By physically piecing a jigsaw puzzle together, we are shifting the focus in our subconscious from confusion and inundation to proactively working on the solution. We become “rewired” to take a more balanced, holistic view of our lives, figuring out how to take the pieces to fit into the big picture. We begin to make connections between things such as relationships, our emotions and our state of health. Patterns begin to make sense as we focus that positive energy and apply it within our own lives. As the jigsaw puzzle takes shape, we may be able to incorporate different parts of our lives that start coming together to form a sensible picture.

Puzzles, crosswords and Sudoku change the way your brain functions from moment to moment. They reduce your fight or flight response because it serves as a good distraction. You’re mentally looking for patterns, making connections, and that’s firing off different parts of your brain that then influence hormone responses. People also find it lowers cortisol, which is your stress hormone, and increases endorphins.

If you are already doing jigsaw puzzles, you are in good company. Two of the major puzzle manufacturers are finding it hard to keep up with demand. Ceaco and Ravensburger companies have seen a 350% increase in sales year over year. There is even a Facebook group Jigsaw Puzzlers that recommends that you tackle the edges first; sort out non-edge pieces by shape on separate trays; don’t start with a puzzle that’s too big; and take your time.

I have found an online jigsaw puzzle site You don’t get the tactile feel of the puzzle pieces, but you still use both sides of your brain to work the puzzle. That’s what is important!  You can even pick the number of pieces you want the puzzle to have. You can pick as few as

9 pieces and up to 1000 pieces. You can pick from several categories like animals, birds, fish, flowers, historical, scenic, and mystery puzzles where you see the entire picture only after you have completed the puzzle.

So for all our sanities, start doing a puzzle!

There’s a popular psychological concept, called flow, that activities like puzzles can ignite. Flow, typically thought of as “being in the zone,” is the state someone enters when they’re totally concentrated on an activity they find fun and fulfilling.

Wright explains that pursuits like puzzles, crosswords and sudoku change the way your brain functions from moment to moment.

“They reduce your right or flight response because it serves as a distraction — the good kind,” she says. “You’re mentally looking for patterns, making connections, and that’s firing off different parts of your brain that then influence hormone responses.”

“People also find it lowers cortisol, which is your stress hormone, and increases endorphins,” Wright adds.

Jigsaw puzzles are a unique activity that allows us to achieve a state of creative meditation, while providing a fun activity that imparts a sense of accomplishment. The benefits to the brain are becoming more clear. Perhaps even more powerful are the effects on the subconscious in helping us piece together this puzzle we call life.

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