Struggling with worry and fear for decades, Jan Gates had relied on prescription drugs to balance her mood. Then she discovered a new hobby that gave her such a deep sense of calm, she was able to get off her meds for good.
“Finally!” Jan Gates rejoiced when, at her six-week post–knee replacement surgery checkup, she was given the green light to return to normal activities. The Rochester, New York, 74-year-old’s nerves were frayed from having been cooped up in her home for so long.
Because it was her right knee, Jan hadn’t been able to drive, so she couldn’t visit friends or her 99-year-old father and his wife in their nursing home during her recovery.
Jan had suffered with chronic anxiety for most of her life and took a low dose of the prescription drug Effexor to control it. And as a 40-year fitness professional, exercise had also always been a big stress reliever, so after a month and a half of pain and isolation, she couldn’t wait to get back to her walking routine and teaching her Pilates and yoga classes.
But just days after she was cleared by her orthopedic surgeon, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and lockdowns went into effect. No! I can’t be stuck inside again, Jan thought, feeling panic rising. And as weeks passed, Jan found herself in a spiral of fear, anger, and frustration that kept mounting. While she hated being stuck at home alone, she was afraid to leave the house, even to go food shopping.
Between trying not to overextend her knee and her fear of catching the virus, by the time she would get home from the grocery store, Jan would be in a full panic. Nothing, not even her medication, helped calm her down. Then, on top of it all, in May 2020, she had to have a hysterectomy, sending her anxiety level soaring to an all-time high. Something’s got to give! she thought. There has to be something else that can help me through this worry.
Suddenly, that “something” randomly popped into Jan’s head: jigsaw puzzles.
A Fun Path to Peace
Before her knee surgery, Jan’s sister had sent her a jigsaw puzzle to do while she recovered. Besides helping to pass time, Jan had been amazed at how, while working on the puzzle, she didn’t feel any pain. She’d ordered more and worked on them throughout that month. She’d loved the challenge of finding and fitting the pieces and the feeling of accomplishment when she finished one.
Maybe doing puzzles could help me relieve my anxiety now, Jan pondered.
She still had a few puzzles in the closet, and sitting down to do one, Jan noticed an immediate calm and focus come over her. And with good reason. She read studies that found doing a jigsaw puzzle has a positive effect on the brain, increasing short-term memory and problem-solving abilities, while encouraging the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and affects concentration and motivation. “Doing a puzzle is immersive and disconnects you from the stresses of day-to-day life,” says Susan Vandermorris, Ph.D.
Jan began spending several hours each day working on puzzles, and as she pieced together tranquil nature scenes filled with bright, cheerful flowers and colorful birds, she found her anxiety level steadily diminish. In fact, she realized that her new hobby calmed her more than taking medication.
Today, with the help of her doctor, Jan has been able to dramatically decrease her medication dosage from 75 mg. to 37 mg. — with the ultimate goal of soon weaning off the drug completely and being medication-free once and for all.
“Life can be stressful, but doing jigsaw puzzles keeps me on an even keel better than anything I have tried,” Jan says. “It’s not only fun, but my brain feels younger — and I feel so calm!”
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.