We live in a world where our brains are always engaged, always buzzing. So much is on our minds on a daily basis: the grocery list, the big conference call, the cable bill, our parents’ anniversary, our son’s recital, our daughter’s science project, the leaky basement (make it stop!). It’s hard to let our minds just let go and play freely, the way we did as kids.
When one of our AGB team members, Shelley, had twins, she found herself overwhelmed and stressed by all the anxieties that come with having your first child (or children, in this case). Are they eating enough? Am I swaddling too tightly? Why is she still crying? What’s that rash? Before the kids started sleeping through the night, Shelley frequently found herself up in the middle of the night, breastfeeding, burping or soothing one or another of the kids. It could be a lethal combination of anxiety, fatigue and boredom, especially around 4AM or so.
“Even though I was so tired, a lot of the time I was too wired to sleep, and I had a hard time letting go of my stress,” she says. “But then on a whim I picked up a book of New York Times crosswords I had gotten for Christmas years ago, and it ended up being a lifesaver for me.”
By lamplight, Shelley did crossword after crossword, and she found that it took her brain to another place – a relaxed place. It gave her something fun to do while feeding, it engaged her brain in a different way and it felt great to finish a puzzle, she says.
“I branched out to acrostics, word searches, word scrambles, whatever I could get my hands on,” says Shelley.
What can these games do for adult brains?
We did a bit of research and found that studies have shown that crosswords and other word puzzles can be a great way to let your mind play. In a 2013 study at the University of Toronto, researcher Bonnie Hayden Cheng studied 178 undergraduate students and found that stressed-out students could benefit from taking “mental breaks.” And though some were able to turn their brains off by taking a nap or going for a run, others found crosswords more effective because the activity took their minds off the task at hand.
“Activities that engage the brain, like reading or crossword puzzles, may be an effective way to stop ruminating about daily stressors,” said Cheng.
A fascinating 2008 study out of the University of California, Berkeley, showed that brain-sharpening activities like crosswords and Sudoku helped relieve stress and anxiety better than mindless activities like watching TV or shopping.
So next time you want to take your brain out to play, consider the humble crossword. Here are some great websites if you don’t want to do them on paper!
Boatload of Puzzles – http://www.boatloadpuzzles.com/playcrossword
CANOE: Lifewise Puzzles – http://lifewise.canoe.ca/Puzzles/
Yahoo Daily Crosswords – http://games.yahoo.com/game/daily-crosswords-flash.html