For one, it requires you to be in the moment (so you get a break from worrying about the future).
There’s been a good bit of chatter over the last few years as to whether cooking can help alleviate anxiety. Culinary courses intending to “treat” depression and anxiety have sprung up. Major publications tout a “road to mental health through the kitchen.” Pyschology Today has proclaimed that “the very process of cooking can nourish your psychological well-being.”
Is quashing generalized anxiety disorder as easy as breaking out a whisk?
Not quite. The science is more complicated, says Todd Farchione, PhD, clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders of Boston University—but there’s reason for optimism. Health spoke to Farchione, as well as Kat Kinsman, the author of Hi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves and a senior food and drinks editor at Extra Crispy (full disclosure: she's also a friend), about an issue reportedly affecting 18% of adult Americans.
Cooking requires mindfulness
“Off the top of my head, there are a couple things that stand out” about cooking and anxiety, said Farchione. For one, he says, “it can be a relaxing activity for some people; it has a mindful quality to it. If somebody’s in the zone cooking, that can have benefits for someone with anxiety.” Being present is counter to the state of anxiety, he explained, which “tends to be a much more future-focused emotional state accompanied by worry.”
If you’re able to stop thinking about work tomorrow or the drama at your upcoming family reunion, for example, and focus on the present and on kitchen tasks, that could be helpful to you. An important caveat, says Farchione, is that this varies by personality. He laughed, “I’m not sure I find cooking particularly relaxing because I’m so perfectionistic; it brings out my perfectionistic qualities.”
Kinsman, who has generalized anxiety disorder, a panic disorder, and depression, says kitchen labor can “knock my brain out of its anxiety loop.” Whether grilling, baking, or using her Instant Pot—she’s hosted some hilarious videos about the device’s calming qualities—the former metalsmith finds tactile activities “tremendously soothing.” Though she doesn’t bake these days (a SIBO diagnosis has restricted her diet), she loves that cooking requires her to stay off gadgets: “My hands are usually in something dirty so I can’t touch my phone. I can’t look at email or Twitter, so I’ve physically removed myself from devices while I’m cooking.”
To Farchione’s point, she’s forced to stay present in the moment, which she says is “a great thing.” Checking email and Twitter “tends to feed itself; it’s a self-perpetuating source of anxiety: What’s the new thing? What’s the new thing?”
A state of flow can help improve general well-being
Another way cooking can potentially ameliorate anxiety is in line with a theory in “positive psychology” called “flow.” The idea of “flow,” explains one expert, is that it’s “effortless energy,” a sort of easy absorption in the task at hand. As Farchione explains, “If the challenge level is not too high and not too low and your skill level is pretty decent, you can achieve a state of flow with the activity itself. For some people, [cooking] could be an opportunity to achieve that flow state. In terms of well-being it could improve [it].”
Not sure that making dinner could help you achieve this mystical “flow?” You’re not alone. Kinsman had to decide that cooking would be her relaxing activity. “This has been work to get to this point,” she said. “It’s not always been this automatic, ‘Oh, cooking is my refuge from the world.’ It’s a thing that I had to decide to do, that this is my uninterrupted time. Just this: This is the primary activity.”
Kinsman went on to explain that she’s not great “at activities that don’t have a measurable outcome; that’s a sort of stress.” She likes that “there’s a concrete end to cooking. … My particular brain allows that as an activity—doing something productive. I’m lucky enough where I know what I’m doing in the kitchen … I’m not worried when I’m [cooking].”
As Farchione says, “Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the underlying brain mechanisms are well worked out, if you can break [that] behavioral pattern of worry, the cooking, because of its focus on measurement, its focus on following the recipe—it may be engaging enough that it creates another path for the person.” Certain activities can help produce a less anxious state, he says, including exercises or tasks. Even coloring books “require just enough executive control, just enough focus and engagement, that it probably takes a person away from [anxiety].”
Cooking is social and involves positive feedback
Making food “ties in with social activities, and you get to share a creation with someone else who often gives us feedback,” says Farchione. “It can be a positive experience; it can be very healthy.”
Kinsman explains, “The reward at the end is you’re feeding yourself. You know what the outcome is going to be.” She might cook while her husband makes cocktails, and says, “This is our focused time to be together and depressurize. Unless I’m actively hangry, it’s very soothing.”
Let’s maybe not call it “therapy”
As for the concept of cooking as “therapy,” Farchione would say, “We would be premature to say that there should be cooking therapy any more than… you could give that title to anything. You could have 'crossfit therapy' or 'running therapy.' Probably not 'TV therapy,' but you get my point.” He sees benefits to “any activity where the person engages such that they can have a mindful, present experience, tune out other stressors in their life, [and] disengage with a worry process.”
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How to get started
If your version of unwinding for the day involves ordering delivery or putting a frozen pizza in the toaster oven, no judgment. Sometimes that’s what you need. But in the new food-crazed era we live in, you’ve got options for how to cook—or “cook.” If you don’t have a good stovetop, maybe you own a pressure cooker or a slow cooker, and those can be just as helpful, says Kinsman.
“My Instant Pot really is a thing that’s alleviated a lot of stress,” she says. “Because there are numbers involved, I know exactly how long something is going to take. I derive a lot of chill and calm from watching countdown clocks.” She loves, too that instead of spending time “fussing and stirring, all you can do is walk away; I find it oddly calming.”
For novice cooks, Kinsman would suggest a recipe using a Dutch oven. “They can be pricey, but you can pick one up at a yard sale,” she explains. “They last and you can really just put things in it, pop it in the oven, do something else for a while, and it comes out delicious every time.” Though it’s the simplest piece of technology, she said, you have to love that “it has built-in leisure time.” Braising large cuts of meat will last you for several days—consider this pork shoulder recipe—and it’s easy as pie.
Anxiety issues differ wildly by the person, but for Kinsman, “Part of my anxiety math is, ‘Did I earn my keep for the day?’” Cooking helps her feel as though she did.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.