I have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and a few days prior, my father-in-law had been admitted to the hospital for a hemorrhagic stroke. His stroke was just the most recent tough news I had found myself dealing with in 2019 — my parents suddenly and unexpectedly got divorced.
Through a circuitous route, I’d discovered that the rhythmic motions of cooking — the chopping, stirring, sauteing and slicing — were soothing. The attention needed to follow a recipe forced me to focus on something other than the worries that constantly bombard my brain. I’d begun cooking a lot a year ago to deal with celiac disease, an autoimmune intolerance to gluten I’d been diagnosed with years before that can make eating out difficult.
So I’d set a New Year’s resolution to make as many new recipes as possible. As I cooked my way through 31 new dishes in 52 weeks, I’d stumbled on something even more significant than better dinners: Cooking can be a great coping mechanism for people like me with anxiety, especially now in the age of coronavirus.
There hasn’t been a lot of research related specifically to cooking and anxiety, but a 2018 review article in the journal Health Education & Behavior looked at several small studies and found some interesting links. Cooking seemed to increase self-esteem and improved psychological well-being; it also appeared to decrease anxiety and agitation in a variety of people, including burn victims and those with dementia.
Experts hypothesize that the activity can be soothing for several reasons.
For one, it engages several senses, making it quite immersive. Because of this sensory engagement, cooking can be a form of mindfulness, says clinical psychologist Trevor Schraufnagel, associate director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at UCLA. Mindfulness often entails trying to focus on one thing in the moment — maintaining one’s attention on a single sensory stimulus, such as the sound of oil crackling, the taste of a sauce, the smell of something baking or the sensation of one’s breath. Several studies suggest mindfulness-based practices can play a role in the treatment of anxiety.
People with significant anxiety often feel like they’re under threat or at risk, and worry can exacerbate this perception, Schraufnagel says. “Cooking may provide a respite from these processes by offering an immersive and sensory-rich activity to take one’s mind off the perceived dangers of one’s life,” he says.
In the 90 minutes it took me to cook eggplant Parmesan for my in-laws, I found myself so immersed in the task that I temporarily forgot about everything going on — the endless worries and what-ifs that I too often dwell on and which can ruin my day.
“Those types of immersive experiences are pretty rare,” Schraufnagel says. “It can be almost a vacation or a break, if only for 45 minutes or an hour and a half. You’re so swallowed up in the process that your mind is taken off these other threats and sources of angst.”
Nicole Farmer, a staff scientist and doctor at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center and lead author of the 2018 review article, says that she considered some of the studies examined in the review promising, but more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between the activity and reduced anxiety.
Farmer says one possible explanation for why cooking seems to alleviate anxiety in some is that it engages the executive functioning center of the brain — housing both short-term working memory needed to carry out complex tasks and longer-term procedural memory needed to remember how to perform skills. Together, they can essentially control our actions in the present moment. Research has shown people with good executive functioning skills have better emotional regulation.
“During cooking, you’re forced to stay within that working memory lane of what you have to do to accomplish the goal,” Farmer says. “That use of working memory and procedural memory actually forces us to block out unnecessary distractions, as well as emotions, that may come in and take us off task from our goal. We think that that’s how cooking can relate to anxiety.”
Another possible explanation for why cooking may ease the symptoms of anxiety is that it can help people to feel both accomplished and in control.
“It communicates to people: My life is very busy and I took an hour or two hours to make this meal and look, everything remained okay,” Schraufnagel says. “The bottom didn’t drop out. Maybe I wasn’t on as thin of ice as I believed.”
When my GAD is bad, I struggle to complete even the simplest tasks. Coupled with the long deadlines that accompany my career as a freelance writer, I can go days without any real sense of accomplishment, which can send my anxiety spiking. Some people with GAD, including me, are obsessed with perfection, and failing to get things done makes us more anxious.
“[Cooking] is concrete — I had this impact in the last two hours and I made something out of nothing,” Schraufnagel says. “That’s incredible.”
Despite the paucity of studies about the benefits of cooking for anxiety and depression, a nascent field has emerged in the past few years: culinary therapy.
Michael Kocet, a mental health counselor and professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, defines culinary therapy as a therapeutic technique that uses culinary arts, cooking, gastronomy and an individual’s personal, cultural and family relationship with food to address emotional and psychological problems.
Kocet began taking cooking classes when he lived in the Boston area over a decade ago. Upon telling people about his endeavor, almost everyone told him the same thing: Cooking is so therapeutic.
“I remember thinking in our field of mental health and counseling, we had art therapy, dance therapy, music therapy and drama therapy, but I’d never heard of anybody developing culinary or cooking therapy,” Kocet says. So he created and taught a course on culinary therapy to master’s and doctoral students preparing to be counselors at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts.
Schraufnagel says it’s important to remember that not everyone has a penchant for the culinary arts. For some people, cooking can cause anxiety, not relieve it. In such cases, other art, dance, music or play therapy could be more appropriate when used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy, he says.
For me, cooking has been an unexpectedly perfect fit
On a recent frigid evening in Chicago, I decided to make tom kha gai soup, a Thai recipe composed of chicken, mushrooms, coconut milk and various spices. I’d just finished a frustrating phone call and was feeling particularly on edge.
Part of the recipe called for bruising lemongrass with a dull metal object. I grabbed my largest knife and began pounding the stalks. After a few swift blows with the handle of the blade, I got into a nice, soothing rhythm. I was calm in no time, the phone call no longer on my mind.