Cake is great therapy. Cookies are, too. Besides, it’s the holiday season, right? Okay, sorta. But, there is some entertaining, respected research.
Of course, before you go and eat a whole cake while laying back to watch t.v.’s Top Chef, Iron Chef, and all the rest, know that it’s not in the eating or the watching. You guessed that much. It is, for certain, in the doing. It is the very act of cooking and baking. In short, think “cooking therapy.”
The Trend of Cooking Therapy
Therapists and mental health centers are using cooking therapy for people experiencing depression, anxiety and similar challenges. This is because the activity requires us to focus, which is a kind of mindfulness. It is a way for us to take our mind off of whatever is getting us down or anxious.
Formally, this approach is known as behavioral activation. Such a method counteracts the more prominent tendencies of passivity and aimlessness. Reading a recipe and, with it, creating a cake is goal-oriented.
Sharing the process with others reduces feeling isolated or disconnected. As a couples counselor, I’ve seen spouses find their “way back” to each other by cooking together. They get a timeout from only thinking about the hurt or divide in their relationship. There’s a reason for the maxim “talking until your blue in the face” and in the heart. Counselors need to be careful about this in sessions.
What couples and persons most often need is a searchlight on their seemingly lost vitality. Cooking therapy leans in this direction. Of course, as one couple joked in the early stages of their reunion, “we avoid cooking recipes together that call for a sharp knife!”
Wall Street Journal’s Deputy Bureau Chief Jeanne Whalen reports on the evidence of “Mental Health Through the Kitchen.” She interviews patients and researchers. Helen Tafoya, clinical manager of a psychosocial rehabilitation program at the University of New Mexico Psychiatric Center in Albuquerque, shared with Whalen: “Preparing and sharing food with others is therapeutic because it’s central to who we are as human beings. ‘The ability to eat and share food is very, very primal.’”
Feeling Alive. No Cooking Required.
In his book Forms of Vitaly, world-reknown developmental psychiatrist and analyst Daniel Stern explores how “dynamic experience” makes us feel alive.
Dynamic experience is just about anything that detangles us from the story lines we tell ourselves over and over again in our heads. Same old stories: We tell these self-stories so often that they overtake us, like self-fulfilling prophesies. We feel dead, depressed or anxious.
But, when we do an ordinary act such as cooking, we experience ourselves in movement. Our senses come alive and our heads less able to overtake us. Stern writes, “The magic is in pairing the similar with the ‘not exactly the same,'” which is a fancy way of saying that we begin to feel more alive when we try something different, like a new recipe. But, we keep it easy on ourselves by holding onto a bit of the familiar, such as say going into a familiar place, the kitchen.
Now, I’m hearing jokes in my head like, “Kitchen? I have a kitchen in my house?” or mini-protests like, “Cook? Politically, I’m not going back to the days before Helen Reddy.”
In which case, sure, maybe cooking therapy is not going to do it for you. It may be some other everyday act that you just have never really given your attention. Maybe it’s walking daily, taking up gardening, a dance class, painting, listening to jazz, or going for drives.
The point is this:
Don’t be a still-life photo with your locked-in storyline on replay. Become animated like a moving camera that zooms in and out with new scenes and, better yet, new possibilities of feeling alive and vital.
With a deliberate pun, here: You just may be able to have your cake and eat it, too. Just look at it with new eyes.