Baking as therapy
Sweet relief ... baking can be a way of healing. Photo: Marina Oliphant
My friend Jean has a theory that many a stressful experience can be absolved through the baking of a cake. Bad day at the office? Whip up a sponge! Fight with the boyfriend? Make scones! Housemates engaging in loud and upsetting sex? Immerse yourself in the delicate art of the croquembouche. This also gives you the opportunity to say the next morning in a somewhat passive aggressive tone ‘so you must be tired this morning this morning, fancy a profiterole?’
But why baking is a perfectly valid form of therapy is more than the cathartic aspect of methodically making - and eating – a tray of chocolate muffins.
As Dr. Russ Harris, a doctor and practitioner of Mindfulness says, baking is an activity that if engaged with fully can help people cope.
“If you think of therapy it means healing. So if you’re stressed or wound up, the best thing to do is to engage in a meaningful activity,” says Harris.
The key word is engage. And also meaning. So this might entail strapping on the pinny, putting on your best Nigella and going right ahead and saying things like “ooh lovely, look at how those globules of butter are just melding with the big chocolate drops, I just want to gobble them up with my mouth.”
The art of being fully engaged with an activity, with your mind focused and with an attitude of openness is called mindfulness. Why it helps people to cope is that it allows the mind to be aware of sad or angry thoughts but to let them sort of pass through. The point is not to distract yourself from those thoughts by furiously whipping butter but instead to make room for them while you concentrate on the way the butter looks and feels. That rather vaguely happy clappy notion of ‘being in the now’ is a welcome side effect of baking.
Another reason why Nigella is a good example of mindfulness is that her values align with her activity. She values food and the preparation of food. Her approach is curious and aware, if occasionally rather over the top. And as Lawson once said, “cooking is about balance and harmony.”
Studies in positive psychology have found that we’re happiest and most relaxed when we’re doing something creative. Conversely, you’re at your most creative when you’re happy and relaxed. As Martha Beck wrote in O magazine (power positivity is go!) earlier this year, “creative work causes us to secrete dopamine, a hormone that can make us feel absorbed and fulfilled without feeling manic.”
Finding solace and harmony in baking turned out to be something I unexpectedly shared with Nigella. After breaking up with my boyfriend last year, I made cupcakes. Dozens of them. It turns out that is no occasion in which cupcakes are not appropriate. I mastered icing them, decorating them and the act of making them for people that I cared about. Indeed I made them for the very people who had helped me pack up the house that I had shared with my ex-boyfriend and listened to me talk about him for way longer than I should have. And it made my love of baking that much sweeter.
As Jean, my wise and exceptional cake baking friend said, “baking is methodical, sweet-smelling, calming and above all, productive ... it generally results in something that you can share with people you care about, increasing their happiness. I think that's why it's so good at reducing anxiety.”
What activities do you find calming? Do you have a best baking comfort recipe and do you fancy sharing it?