By Dr Andrea Furst, a leading sports and performance psychologist, shares her top brain stimulation tips to relieve anxiety and improve performance. Dr. Furst works with athletes and Olympians to enhance the mental side of their game.

During lockdown, we all sought new ways to keep busy. At one point it was impossible to buy flour, as baking swept the nation; then, in a desperate attempt to shed the pounds gained eating all that banana bread, we turned to yoga and jogging. Games and puzzles took off in a big way, with 21% of Brits turning to jigsaws to help them get through the last year.

But jigsaw puzzles are much more than just boredom busters.

Research commissioned by Gibsons, the British jigsaw and puzzle company, highlights the link between completing a jigsaw puzzle and a positive mindset; almost a quarter of puzzlers say they feel an increased sense of positivity after puzzling, increasing to 27% for those who participate in sport.

Doing jigsaw puzzles has been shown to:

  • Boost mood
  • Increase dopamine levels
  • Increase productivity
  • Reset the brain
  • Increase calm

All of which support good mental health.

Leading sportsmen and women seem to turn to jigsaws too: British tennis No1 Johanna Konta turned to jigsaws during lockdown to ‘stay sane’ ahead of  Wimbledon 2020; the England Women’s hockey team has posted pictures of them doing jigsaw puzzles together between training sessions and the England Rugby Men’s Team in the Japan 2019 World Cup training camp shared the challenge and accomplishment of completing jigsaws as a team in the evenings to relax, unwind and bond.

Though we are not all elite athletes, we can use some of the same methods to improve performance; here Dr Andrea Furst shares five brain stimulation tips to help enhance positivity and focus:

  • Train your mind like a muscle: adopt the same approach to training your mind as you do your body’s muscles.  Take the time to learn about yourself and your mental approach, to then enable the improvement to your mental skills.  
  • Shake up your clever, but lazy brain: our brains like patterns and trends to conserve energy - so to make behavioural change you will have to direct your brain to dedicate the effort and work required to achieve your goals.
  • One thing at a time. A. Time: slow your thoughts down by focusing and engaging on one task at a time, multi-tasking typically results in a very busy, exhausted brain! 
  • And breathe: learn how to breathe effectively as breathing techniques will give your mind something to focus on and in turn, relax your mind and body.  
  • Be present: find activities to be fully engaged in, such as jigsaw puzzles as they can help quieten the mind and be in the present moment. When your attention is on shapes and pieces, rather than split every which way, it creates a calming effect and can help reduce stress and anxiety.

The bottom line:

Techniques and tools that promote athletes to be in the moment, and to develop ‘being present’ as a habit, are extremely effective for achieving mental clarity.  A jigsaw puzzle is one such tool; it’s a relaxing form of entertainment that can act as a distraction and lift the mood via the sense of achievement it creates, as well as providing a break away from screens and social media.