I live with generalized anxiety disorder. My primary coping strategy for it — in addition to talk therapy and medication — is cooking. The methodical nature of putting together a recipe, especially one that requires multiple steps over 30 minutes or more, has a calming, grounding, and soothing effect.
For psychologists and occupational therapists, cooking as coping is simply one example of a method they call “behavioral activation.” It works by focusing the mind on a single task with discrete steps, redirecting attention from negative thoughts, and building skills and confidence. For me — having been diagnosed with ADD in my 30s — it also provides an opportunity to actively engage my brain in something that does not easily permit distraction.
An added benefit? Learning to cook with healthy ingredients improved my diet, which has also been shown to help with depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders, as well as having the obvious physical benefits.
Now, of course, the fact that cooking to alleviate anxiety symptoms works for me and for many others does not mean it will work for everyone with anxiety. People with OCD or cooking- or food-related phobias should find another way to wrangle their anxious feelings into control.
If You Cook It, They Will Come
The benefits of cooking extend far beyond the process. Sometimes, I cook to soothe anxiety when I am not especially hungry. On an especially anxious day, I’ve been known to churn out enough food to feed a small army from my little kitchen.
I share the bounty with friends and family, which strengthens interpersonal bonds and goodwill. And if they like it (they always do), I get a shot of pride on top of it all. Plus, I learn about the cuisines I explore, the regions they come from, and how classic dishes evolved with migration in a culinary diaspora.
No therapist told me to try cooking. I had gone through periods of enjoying the kitchen, and periods of total disinterest and lack of motivation when it came to food. But during one particularly difficult year of loss, underemployment, panic attacks, and new health crises endemic to middle age, I found myself “zenned out” in the kitchen more and more frequently. Perhaps not coincidentally, I became especially focused on comfort foods, and foods that are considered folk remedies around the world. At one point I realized that, in fact, I was comforted as much by the process as I was by the result.
Some of my favorite things to cook don’t require too much precision (that can be stressful), but they do involve enough steps and ingredients to occupy me for long enough for the full chill-out effect.
I decided to dub the new venture “The Anxiety Kitchen” on my personal social media accounts, and I found that sharing pictures and recipes worked magic for my psyche.
Here is one from the earliest days in The Anxiety Kitchen, adapted from other versions found on the internet and refined (or rather expanded) to serve my palate and my nervous system.
Recipe: Caldo Verde (Portuguese Kale Soup)
This low-fat, crowd-pleasing soup is Portugal’s national dish. It is essentially a basic potato soup dressed up with sausage and lots of kale. It has a popular (and more substantial) local incarnation in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where it is known as “Portuguese penicillin.” I adapted it for foggy San Francisco summer days from versions by Leite’s Culinaria and Forks Over Knives, with a nod to author Steve Silberman, for the Massachusetts sensibility.
It’s inexpensive, uses only one pot, and can be made meatless or vegan with any number of veggie and bean combos. I hope you enjoy it.
- 1/2 head of green cabbage, sliced very thinly
- 1/2 head of kale, rinsed well, ribs removed, sliced very thinly (like this)
(you can sub the above with 1 head of collard greens)
- 1 lb. chouriço (Not to be confused with chorizo! You can substitute linguica — or choose a low-fat sausage you enjoy.)
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 or 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 5 to 6 russet potatoes (or equivalent Yukon Gold potatoes; replace half the potatoes with lower glycemic index sunchokes if you can find them)
- 1 15-oz. can, dark red kidney beans
- 1 15-oz. can, cannellini beans (or substitute garbanzo beans if you prefer)
- 2 carrots, rinsed but unpeeled, diced (optional)
- 2 ribs celery, sliced (optional)
- 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved (optional)
- 8 cups water, or chicken or vegetable broth (or 4 cups of each)
- salt and pepper to taste
Step by step:
- Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a thick-bottomed soup pot on medium-high heat. Cook sausage slices until slightly browned, for about 5 minutes, making sure both sides of the slices get a sear.
- Remove browned sausage from pan and place on paper towels to absorb excess fat and oil. But leave a little sausage fat in the pan.
- Sautee onion in the same pan until translucent (add a little of the remaining extra virgin olive oil if there isn’t much fat left).
- Add potato and garlic and stir frequently to allow flavors to meld until potatoes and carrots begin to soften.
- Add water and/or broth and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until potatoes are getting mushy.
- Remove half of the contents of the pot and set aside. With an immersion blender (or in batches in your regular blender), blend ingredients until smooth and creamy. Return the remaining soup to the pot.
- Add the beans, carrots, celery, and tomatoes, and simmer an additional 10 minutes. In addition to a more complex flavor, these add a nice variety of textures to the dish.
- Finally, add back the sausage and mix thoroughly. Adjust salt and pepper to your liking.
- At the last moment, stir in the kale/cabbage/collard greens. Adding these at the end helps the greens retain their bright green color from a slight blanch in the hot soup rather than a prolonged simmer.