I’ve always loved a good puzzle game. As a kid, I could play Dr. Mario on my NES for hours. Math and word puzzles were right up my alley as well, and on long car rides, you could find me with my nose in a puzzle book, busily hunting through word search grids.
My panic attacks began in college, and to cope with my high level of pre-bedtime anxiety, I found myself using puzzle games as a method of distraction. First, it was those word scrambles from the newspaper. Then, in grad school, I met Sudoku.
If smartphones were a thing back when I was in school, I’m sure I would have happily tossed the newspaper into the recycling bin in favor of using a shiny little handheld device that does all the things.
All I had then was a flip phone with a trial version of Tetris. Before that, I lugged around a very solid-looking Nokia. The best game on that clunker? Snake.
And now? I have every game at my fingertips – and, while convenient, it’s a little overwhelming. There are so many – well, too many — puzzle games to choose from in the iTunes app store.
Which ones seem to work best at quelling my anxiety at the end of the day?
LET’S PLAY WITH COLORS AND WORDS
I’ve narrowed it down to these two:
1. Flow free. This incredibly simple and satisfying game presents you with a single goal: to connect colored dots. In Flow Free, you’re given a 5×5 grid with two red, green, blue, orange, and yellow dots. Using the empty spaces in the grid, you simply drag one dot to its similarly-colored partner while making sure to use each space in the grid.
And that’s it. Seriously, that’s it. That’s the whole objective.
The first few series of grids (5×5, 6×6, and 7×7) are very easy to complete. So easy, in fact, that the games take on a meditative quality for me after a while: my brain focuses on the singular goal of drawing pathways between colored dots, and nothing else.
I love this game for truly intense bouts of anxiety. It’s physically easy to play no matter how badly you’re shaking, and there aren’t any jarring sounds or visual effects that might trigger further anxiety.
2. Wordogram Free. If you’ve ever played the pen-and-paper based word game called Jotto, you played Wordogram Free. Here’s the premise: the computer selects a secret five-letter word (and doesn’t share it with you). Your ultimate goal is to guess the secret word.
For each word that you guess, the computer will tell you how many letters are shared in common with the secret word. So, for example – if the secret word is CANOE and your guess is FIGHT, the game will tell you that there are zero letters in common, and you can rule F, I, G, H, and T out.
Through the process of elimination, you slowly narrow down the alphabet to the letters that are in the secret word – and then, all it takes is some simple unscrambling to input the correct answer.
LET’S PLAY WITH PROS AND CONS
I find that Wordogram Free more useful than Flow Free when my mind is clogged with thoughts. Although Flow Free is relaxing to play, it doesn’t keep your brain busy enough to shut down anxious thoughts. It’s entirely possible to ruminate on something distressing while playing.
However, Wordogram Free isn’t without fault. The game involves more than just rudimentary cognitive skill — which can be a good thing or a bad thing for you. It keeps your brain busy, not blank. And you really do need to enjoy words and logic in order to utilize this game as an anxiety distraction method — if logic puzzles frustrate you, this probably isn’t the right game to help you out.
Neither of these two games are timed (although both have timer options that you can turn off, if you’d like), which is a feature that I tend to gravitate toward. No timers, no stress.
As many therapists will argue, it’s better in the long run to confront your anxiety rather than hide from it. The theory is this: facing your fears will help you to overcome them, whereas avoidance will further trick your mind into thinking your fears are true threats.
Still, whenever I’m feeling the first few rumblings of panic in my gut, a simple distraction can make a huge difference in my anxiety level.
Do you play any of the above games to distract you from anxiety? Which one works best for you?