Growing up, I never knew how to cook. I set a bagel on fire in the microwave once or twice and suddenly, my rights to operating major appliances were revoked — weird, right? But I started baking anyway. I found that while doing it, it made me feel good. While the world around me was spinning and disastrous, I could stir basic ingredients together to create something that’d make people smile.
I started baking to find release for my anxiety about a year ago, but the real moment I knew it was more than a “fun activity” was when I was halfway into an anxiety attack. Midway between hyperventilation, I stood up, walked to the kitchen, and, as if on autopilot, started to bake. Grabbing a simple cookie recipe from a drawer, I read it and worked mechanically.
Measure. Pour. Measure. Stir.
By the time I was scooping the little balls of dough onto the cookie sheet, the darkness had faded.
My attack was over.
Mainstream therapy doesn’t have to be the go-to option
For as long as I can remember, I’ve lived with varying levels of anxiety. But I also had depression, which always overshadowed my anxiety attacks. Instead of finding treatment, I’d put my anxiety on the back burner and hope it’d go away. It wasn’t until my anxiety came out swingin’ in the last year that I realized I needed to find ways to truly cope.
I started with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a first choice and suggestion for many people. But with a high copay and cost of living, it seemed unlikely that I could go often enough to make a significant impact on my condition.
My therapist recommended meditation and yoga for stress relief, which helped only when (or if) I practiced. I knew about the benefits of talk therapy, the release that exercise could bring, and the concept of music therapy.
But none of these were comfortably me.
I needed something that fit my specific needs, like budget, time, and simplicity. And it wasn’t until I was sitting, with my hands in a pile of dough, that I realized that I was doing something helpful for my anxiety. For me, baking became a great coping mechanism.
I love its simple magic of taking five ingredients and turning them into dinner. You can take the same combination of ingredients — flour, eggs, sugar, etc. — and make cookies one day and muffins the next. The process and need for focus at the task at hand make it easy to back out of my anxious mind.
Why baking is good for your mental health
“When the task allows you to create something to nourish yourself and your loved ones, it can be a very powerful experience,” says Julie Ohana, creator of CulinaryArtTherapy.com.
Ohana has believed in the therapeutic potential of culinary art therapy (CAT) for over 15 years, but it wasn’t until recently that she returned to her passion of working with CAT. Today, she offers individual and group CAT sessions to help people experience the benefits for themselves.
Although it’s not a mainstream therapy, using cooking for more than utility is becoming more popular. In one recent study, researchers used a combination of CBT and culinary therapy to help people in hospice with their grieving process. Losing a loved one can be hard, but the results of the study were positive, suggesting that culinary therapy could help prevent and limit the complications that come with grief.
Another study saw that adolescents with the most cooking skills reported a greater sense of mental well-being, as well as less symptoms of depression. It’s believed that culinary therapies could even be helpful in treatments for eating disorders and autism as well.
“I believe that focusing on a specific task or skill, forcing someone to ‘get out of their own head’… can really be helpful to quiet one’s inner dialogue where the anxiety stems from,” Ohana says. CAT boasts it can increase self-esteem, enhance brain development, and help people connect — all while being a delicious treatment. (While I haven’t attended one of Ohana’s classes, I can testify from my experience that each session ends on a tasty note.)
Ohana is also working on creating professional trainings for people looking to learn and guide CAT sessions for others. “Breaking those thought patterns is very helpful in being able to get control in anxiety attacks short term, and also teach longer-term coping skills,” Ohana notes. The key is to not get anxious about the process itself.
Cooking for a family on Thanksgiving? That’s not considered stress-free cooking. Don’t overwhelm yourself with an impossible four-course meal. Cook for you.
Ohana agrees. “For those people who find cooking itself stressful, I would suggest by starting with short, simple recipes. No need to create a Julia Child-worthy five-course meal,” she says.
The best part of cooking are the edible and emotional results
Baking or cooking can be two different beasts, depending on the person. In the end, it comes down to finding the right recipe. For me, the more complex it gets, the easier I’m overwhelmed. But people who like structure may find these complex recipes appealing.
“Pick the one that feels right for you. If something tastes good to you, it is right! Have fun with it!” Ohana reminds us.
TipIt might seem expensive at first, but baking is like bulk buying all your CAT sessions at once. Ingredients can go a long way. Have a couple of go-to recipes on hand to turn to when you’re having trouble thinking straight. Within an hour, you’ll have something substantial to show for your efforts.
A mindful hobby can be effective therapy
The important thing to remember, according to Ohana, is to be mindful.
“Be mindful of your work, your steps in the process, your knife skills, and of course the finished product. If this isn’t something that you feel comfortable with on your own, I would consult with someone in the field,” she says.
Everyone is different. Cooking dinner may stress you out, but baking may not, or the other way around. The benefits of both are the same: food and relaxation.
But for some, CBT or medications may work better. For others, who have less availability or funds, alternative therapies may be key. Don’t feel limited to just one treatment. Work with your doctor — and maybe in your kitchen — to experiment with different therapies. Find something that’s right for you. You may be surprised that a hobby is also a therapy.
Jamie is a copy editor who hails from Southern California. She has a love for words and mental health awareness, and is always looking for ways to combine the two. She’s also an avid enthusiast for the three P’s: puppies, pillows, and potatoes. Find her on Instagram.