Jigsaw-Puzzle Therapy

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, today sharing my theory that doing jigsaw puzzles is beneficial to mental health.

It’s no accident that my husband has a retirement business specializing in making wooden jigsaw-puzzle tables, or that I gave that same specialization to Liss MacCrimmon’s husband, Dan Ruskin, in my cozy mystery series. I’ve been putting jigsaw puzzles together for decades. About ten years ago, I designed the prototype for a puzzle table and asked my husband to build it for me. Why? Mostly because I was tired of chasing down pieces the cats had knocked on the floor, especially the ones with bite marks in them.

puzzle from a few years back with the table on its removable legs

puzzle from a few years back with the table on its removable legs

It took me a little longer to realize that when I remember to follow certain guidelines, doing jigsaw puzzles isn’t just an enjoyable hobby. It has the added advantage of exercising a different part of the brain than the one I use for writing, and it is also a major stress reducer.

Notice I say guidelines, not rules. There are many different ways to go about working a jigsaw puzzle, and most people have a favorite technique that suits them just fine. How to sort the pieces, what part of the puzzle to work on first, and how large the finished puzzle will be are only a few of the decisions individuals make. Some folks continually challenge themselves with more and more difficult puzzles. Others only do landscapes. Or castles. Or reproductions of famous paintings.

puzzles to do in 2016

puzzles to do in 2016

My guidelines are fairly simple. I do like a challenge . . . but not so much of one that I get frustrated. That’s why I avoid puzzles with vast areas in all one color. Too much sky, too much snow-covered ground, even too many flowers and I’m going to drive myself nuts trying to put the pieces together. My favorites these days are the collages produced by White Mountain Puzzles in New Hampshire. Since they are made up of dozens of smaller scenes—everything from movie posters to patchwork quilts to cats to candy wrappers—there are clues in almost every piece to hint at where it belongs. With 1000 pieces in all, this doesn’t mean putting the puzzle together is easy, but it isn’t impossible, either. As an added bonus, White Mountain puzzle pieces are thicker than most, making it easier on my arthritic fingers.

puzzle (224x300)

When I put a puzzle together, I like to start by finding the border pieces in the box and assembling the four sides. Once that’s done, I use the four drawers, two on each side of my custom-made jigsaw-puzzle table, to put all the remaining pieces right side up. I also have a larger sorting board that is separate from the puzzle table. With these I can put almost all the pieces out so I can see what’s on them. There will be a few left in the box and I turn these over, too. As I work the puzzle and use pieces from the sorting trays, I move the pieces in the box into the empty spaces. As things progress further, I gradually eliminate the large tray, and then each of the drawers, consolidating until there’s only one and I’m on the home stretch.

drawer (300x184)

Okay, I admit it. I’m a tad obsessive arranging and rearranging the pieces. I find it soothing. That’s a good thing, right?

When I work on a puzzle, I constantly look for clues. With those collage puzzles I mentioned, there are sometimes interior borders. If there are, I build the outlines of those smaller scenes and then look for the pieces to fill them. Faces make great clues. If there are people in the scenes, I pull out all the face and body pieces and using the illustration on the box the puzzle came in, place them approximately where they belong.

I can hear some of you muttering that it’s cheating to use the picture on the box to help put the puzzle together. Not if you’re trying to avoid frustration. If you like the challenge of figuring it out for yourself, by all means go for it. I understand there are even some puzzles that come without a picture.

day two

day two

Sometimes I do choose a puzzle that doesn’t contain a lot of clues because I like the look of it. That usually means I complete everything but a swath of one color or design first. To finish, I sort the remaining pieces by shape. Usually, there are only about a half dozen shapes. Once I have them sorted, I simply try each piece that might fit a given space until I find the right one. This is repetitive and time-consuming. It would drive me crazy to do an entire puzzle that way, but it gets the job done. I have heard there are puzzles where every single piece is a different shape. Now that makes me shudder, but others obviously feel differently. To each his own!

last puzzle completed in 2015

last puzzle completed in 2015

About twice a year, I get to enjoy the rush of pleasure that comes from typing “the end” on the final page of a novel. In between those times, I satisfy my need to finish something by completing jigsaw puzzles. There’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment that comes from admiring the final result of all those hours spent putting pieces together.

And it’s much cheaper than seeing a therapist.

Any other jigsaw-puzzle fans out there? I’d love to hear how you approach putting your puzzles together and whether you are looking for a challenge, or a way to relax, or both when you start a new puzzle. And if anyone is interested in a custom-made jigsaw-puzzle table, you can find them at JigsawPuzzleTables.com


Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award in 2008 for best mystery nonfiction for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2014 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (The Scottie Barked at Midnight) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in the Merchant’s Hall) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com

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15 Responses to Jigsaw-Puzzle Therapy

  1. I have not done a jigsaw puzzle in years, but may have to take it up (and buy a table from Sandy.) Stress reducer. Brain exerciser. Cheaper than a therapist. All good!

  2. MCWriTers says:

    I’m with Brenda! One of my daughters, who came home from India when she was ten, has major learning disabilities. Shapes, she can do. Words, she can only do in a limited way. During the first few years she was home she did jigsaw puzzles almost every day — and cold do a 1,000-1,500 piece in puzzle in a couple of hours. It kept her amused — and, more than that – made her feel competent. I still have some of her puzzles around (she didn’t move them all with her to Philadelphia!) But I haven’t done one in years. Maybe it’s time. Lea Wait

    • That speed is amazing. At my best, it takes me a week or two with 1000 pieces, and that’s when I’m being obsessive about it and there are LOTS of clues in the pieces. Usually it’s more like a month or two from start to finish, doing a little at a time. That last puzzle I finished in 2015 sat untouched for about six months when I was doing so much traveling and just didn’t take the time to work on it. Big mistake. Definitely had more built-up stress during that stretch.

  3. Vida Antolin-Jenkins says:

    Our family tradition is to set up a puzzle table at gatherings. Everyone can take a turn participating, makes for a small group gathering within the larger crowd (family of thirteen children; with spouses and offspring, we quickly number close to 50 at a major gathering), and provides a chance for quiet conversation. Love the custom table! That’s on my to buy list.

    • We used to do that (with a much smaller group) at family Christmas gatherings. Sometimes it was quite late in the day before the puzzle was finished, but everyone helped. Glad you like the table. I’d certainly be lost without mine.

  4. I love jigsaw puzzles but haven’t worked on one in ages. Last year I treated myself to a large set of gel pens and some Zentangle pictures to color in — a terrific “mindless” activity to clear the brain while in the midst of writing a mystery novel! I guess this falls into the oh-so-trendy “adult coloring book” category, although my Zentangle drawings are on cards, not in a book.

    This year my husband gave me a book on creating my own Zentangles, along with a set of special pens for creating them. We’ll have to see about that. Learning how to do something new is NOT the same as mindless coloring, which is about all I can manage when I’m writing. 🙂

    • I hadn’t thought of coloring as clearing the brain, but it sounds like it would work very well. It seems to me that the important thing is to break away from the writing to do something completely different. Physical exercise works, too. Come to think of it, so does doing dishes. It took me years to realize that if I didn’t take regular breaks, I would end up too exhausted to be able to write anything coherent at all.

  5. Sennebec says:

    We do one a couple times a year and I serve as ‘fresh eyes’ walking by and spotting that elusive piece. Great column for this time of ear.

  6. Jen Blood says:

    Okay, so I’ll admit it — I’m a total puzzle addict, and I love the idea of the jigsaw table! I’m typically limited to 500-piece puzzles because I can never find a working space big enough, and the idea of having the drawers is genius. I’m definitely putting one of your husband’s tables on my wishlist for next year!

    • Thanks, Jen. I used to use a card table, but there was never room to lay out all the pieces and then, of course, the cats kept knocking them onto the floor. I tried a puzzle board with a cover years ago, one sold in a jigsaw puzzle catalog. It was supposed to keep pieces in place when you set it on end. No surprise–all the pieces immediately separated and fell to the bottom. Sandy’s puzzle tables have a wooden cover to keep pieces in place and cats off. I won’t say the pieces don’t slide at all when you stand it on end, but they do stay together, and the cats only get the pieces I drop on the floor.

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  8. Loved your post! I, too, am a fiend about jigsaw puzzles–
    and recently have taken my “usual” methodic method of doing
    them–and thrown it to the winds! It makes a good change and
    that’s good, too, eh?

    I have a few posts about the puzzles I’ve done–you might check
    them out at http://www.booksandbuttons.com and fill in the search box
    with ‘jigsaw puzzle’.
    I look forward to reading more posts—and your books, too!

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