Word Puzzles and Managing Anxiety

If you solve this, I will send you a pony.*

I realized the other day when I was doing one of my word puzzles codes that I am pretty relaxed when I do them, and not because I like to do them while soaking in the tub.

Solving a code doesn’t sound very anxiety free Jo?

A cryptogram is a word puzzle featuring encrypted text that the user decrypts to reveal a message. Cryptograms in newspapers and magazines are usually based on a simple substitution cipher, usually replacing each letter in the alphabet with a different one. These messages are hard enough to give your brain a workout, but not so hard you get frustrated.

What I learned is that nobody cares if I solve the code or not. The code doesn’t care, friends and family don’t care and I am certain Socrates (pronounced Soh-Crates) is not coming back from the dead to lecture me about not being able to solve one of his quotes. Most of the time people are busy solving their own metaphoric cryptograms (or possibly a real Sudoku) and don’t have much any time to ponder if I am sucking at cryptograms.

Back in the fall of 1998, I discovered cryptograms and have been doing at least one every day ever since. Even when sick, or busy and even while jetlagged, although the code take a little bit longer to solve after 24 hours without sleep, I hunker down and solve a puzzle.

Solve the puzzle, don’t solve the puzzle, it’s all good. I get a nice mental workout and learn stuff. Some of the cryptograms are pretty deep.

Everything’s in the mind. That’s where it all starts. Knowing what you want is the first step toward getting it – Mae West.

And what if I can’t solve it? I just look up the answer in the back. What I am saying is that it’s not the end of the world if I fail to solve a puzzle. I’m not going to get fired, ridiculed or arrested for not knowing who the hell is Dimitri Shostakovich let alone how to spell Shostakovich. It’s not about perfection. Imagine how unpleasant cryptos would be if I told myself I had to solve every single one without ever having to look up the answer. Yet all of us do this, place pressure on us to be perfect and know the answer each and every time.

To solve a crypto, you have to follow clues, or patterns and there is quite a bit of guess work. When I first started doing cryptograms I used to hesitate to take a leap and make a guess. What if I was wrong? What if Soh-Crates mysteriously appears in my bathroom and arrests me? Yup, I got sucked into an all or nothing mentality and I was afraid of taking a leap for the ridiculous reason of possibly being wrong and potentially pissing off a long dead Greek philosopher. Making that leap only has two outcomes; I am going to be right or I am going to be wrong. I am not going to be jailed.

I always work on my cryptograms in pencil because I make a lot of mistakes. I erase and redo sometimes many times. Cryptograms have taught me patience and to be comfortable with mistakes. Erase, rethink, start again.

It would be naive to think that doing a few word puzzles will cure anxiety, it won’t, anxiety is a tough and relentless affliction that affects millions. In my books, anyone who can manage anxiety is ahead of the game. The skills I learned by doing a cryptogram every day for over 20 years has taught me to transfer those skills to the bigger more important aspects of my life.

Not a bad philosophy if I say so myself.

*By I will send you a pony, I mean I will not send you a pony.