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‘The Great British Baking Show’ doesn’t just provide stress relief — it teaches it

Competing in the friendliest reality television competition requires immense mental fortitude.
Competing in the friendliest reality television competition requires immense mental fortitude. (Jennifer Tapias Derch/For The Washington Post)

This article contains spoilers for the past three seasons of “The Great British Baking Show.”

The finale of last season’s “Great British Baking Show” gave three bakers an innocuous challenge: a chocolate cake. Simple enough. Making a chocolate cake under time pressure and the eventual scrutiny of millions of viewers, of course, is another matter.

“Trying to stay calm, but my heart is like dum-dum, dum-dum,” Alice Fevronia said.

“Nerves still very much jangling,” Steph Blackwell said.

“That’s fine,” said David Atherton, cool as creme pat, after watching a saucepan boil over. “I think I’ll start again.” Atherton kept calm, cracking jokes and explaining his techniques for the camera, all the way to victory.

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Britain’s “ridiculously friendly” competition, known as “The Great British Bake Off” in its home country, is famous on both sides of the Atlantic for soothing viewers who watch its amateur bakers perfect cakes, pies and breads — even as contestants endure what some call the most nerve-racking pressure of their lives.

Those who make it to the end of television’s calmest competition are, of course, star bakers. But they’re also everyday masters of mental fortitude. Finalists who spoke with The Washington Post said the competition requires just as much focus and flow as baking skills.

“It’s 50 percent a battle of your mind,” said Kim-Joy, a 2018 finalist and mental-health specialist with a serenity so contagious that a Guardian columnist dubbed her “Balm to the Nation’s Psyche.” (She is known professionally by her first name.)

Atherton, a health worker with experience in intensive-care nursing, was often the most levelheaded contestant of his class. “The biggest determining factor is how you cope under pressure,” he said.

Even while working in intensive care, Atherton said, he was known for keeping his cool. Part of his work also involves teaching techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy, he said, such as the ability to mentally reframe stressful situations.

Atherton said he keeps a mantra in his head: “Being stressed is not going to make it better. It’s always going to make it worse.” That meant he often took a different approach to preparing. He rarely set timers, relying on intuition and his knowledge of ingredients more than lists. Just before taping began, he said, as many contestants put in a long weekend practicing, he took a long cycling trip from London to Paris. He reminded himself that enjoying the process was more important than winning.

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Each contestant handles the pressure differently. Recent finalists, including Kim-Joy, 2019 finalist Steph Blackwell, and 2017 finalist Steven Carter-Bailey, have begun to talk publicly about how their past experiences with anxiety informed how they competed. Some speak of their time “in the tent” as a sort of kind crucible, reshaping how they view their own mental strength.

“In the last three or four years,” Carter-Bailey said, “the mental health of the contestants of ‘Bake Off’ has been publicized so much that we have to accept it, and talk to each other and support each other.”

“I’ll always be the nervous person,” said Blackwell, whose remarkable run last year fell to what she’s described as “self-inflicted” pressure. “And I’m proud of what I did manage to achieve with it.”

Blackwell said experiences with anxiety and disordered eating had given her a fraught relationship with food — a stigma baking helped alleviate. “I really threw myself into an uncomfortable situation,” she said. “It gave me a real strength.”

Just as the mind orders baking, so can baking order the mind. The values of balance and organization, for example, are essential to cooking systems like the French mise en place, roughly “everything in its place.” Practitioners say its methods instill discipline and calm beyond the kitchen.

Students of the technique “organize their desks, their closets, their rooms,” writes Dan Charnas in his book “Everything in Its Place: The Power of Mise-En-Place to Organize Your Life, Work, and Mind.” “They even begin ‘mise-en-placing’ their social activities to maximize their time off.”

Contestants described a similar dialogue between the show and life. “I’ve definitely got more organized since doing ‘Bake Off.’ It’s just helped me chill out,” Kim-Joy said. And as a mental-health worker used to managing steep caseloads with the National Health Service and later with university students, her work experience “directly related” to the competition. “It’s trying to practice what you preach,” she said.

Much of that practice has to do with time management. Kim-Joy stayed cool by keeping detailed lists of timed segments that she took with her into challenges.

Carter-Bailey and Blackwell used similar methods as pressure mounted. Keeping written lists was crucial for Carter-Bailey, he said, displacing his stresses onto paper. “Mental strength carried me through,” he said — until, in the final competition, it didn’t.

The immense pressure of the final cracked Carter-Bailey’s system apart. Years-old problems with anxiety came flooding back. “Lack of planning, lack of self-care — I hadn’t been sleeping or eating properly — just all contributed to a breakdown,” he said.

“Part of the process of ‘Bake Off’ was healing because it forced me into admitting it,” Carter-Bailey said, referring to old struggles with anxiety. “I wasn’t ashamed.”

Some contestants, under the strain of sudden fame, have become vocal about mental well-being across one’s life.

“Baking really is good for your mental health,” Kim-Joy said. The “paradox” of the tent, she said, is the pressure surrounding that calming activity.

Stress is inevitable. Although bakers prepared for it differently — some making careful lists, others none at all — they agreed that the ability to channel nerves in a productive way often made the biggest difference in the tent.

Blackwell said the show taught her how to deal with the “little hiccups” that go wrong. Now she’s working with causes centered on eating disorders, mental health and women’s health.

“Last year,” she said, “I just broke down boundaries I never thought were possible.”

Carter-Bailey, who works part-time in marketing, joined a mental-health awareness campaign and now talks to schoolchildren about social media and anxiety.

He stressed that appearances can deceive. “The people who seem or feel the weakest,” he said, “are the strongest.”