Stay calm and cook on

Credit: Louie Favorite / AJC

Credit: Louie Favorite / AJC

Science shows time in the kitchen can improve your mental health

A couple weeks ago, the word “anxiety” was trending on Twitter. Maybe you noticed that, too, as you checked your phone for the latest headlines about the COVID-19 pandemic, or Black Lives Matter, or scrolled through Facebook and Instagram feeds to see how everyone else is faring.

It’s normal to feel anxious right now, health experts tell us, because the world can feel like it’s spinning out of control. But, there are ways of coping.

Cooking is one of them.

“Cooking can be a source of stress relief or a source of pleasure,” said Dr. Negar Fani, a clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University.

“All the senses can be engaged when it comes to cooking,” Fani said. “You are smelling, tasting, seeing things. And, your attention is brought to the present moment.”

When we are able to sustain our attention, and are engaged in the present, she said, “it can help reduce stress or anxiety.”

Certain kitchen activities, particularly repetitive ones like chopping food or kneading bread, are ideal for bringing you into the moment. “Cooking is a very effective way to engage your attention in a sustained way,” Fani said. “Repetition is part of that. It is part of a mechanism of mindfulness.”

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Credit: Michael Tercha

Credit: Michael Tercha

Husband and wife psychotherapists Dennis and Angela Buttimer run the Atlanta Center of Mindfulness and Well-Being. “When you are in the kitchen, if you are very present with it, you’re going to have more of that calming response,” Dennis Buttimer said.

Cooking can be not only a way to achieve calmness, but also to engage feelings of pleasure, especially during the pandemic.

“We are limited through social interactions. Through cooking, we can engage these pleasure centers directly,” Fani said. “When we are smelling things, our olfactory bulb — the center where we get the smell — is connected to pleasure centers in the brain. It is a way to directly access feelings of pleasure.”

Kitchen activities also can be an outlet for pent-up energy, much like sports. “Our emotions are a source of energy. They need an outlet,” Fani said. “The physical outlet that cooking can provide — kneading dough, grinding stuff in a mortar and pestle — can be used as an emotion regulation strategy.”

Grab that chef’s knife, and chop, chop, chop your way to sanity.

It turns out that numerous activities associated with cooking — from meal planning to grocery shopping to washing dishes — are beneficial, because they can provide a sense of control.

Does your spice cabinet or pantry need reorganizing? Could the fridge use a deep cleaning? Even these little chores can be helpful for your mental health, as you release some energy and gain a sense of accomplishment.

Credit: Laurie Skrivan

Credit: Laurie Skrivan

The kitchen isn’t a natural haven for everyone. And, these days, even the most passionate home cook might want to throw in the kitchen towel and head to the living room couch after a day of Zoom and Microsoft Team meetings held with the microphone on mute so colleagues can’t hear kids screaming in the background. Who wants to make dinner when you’re that exhausted? Time for takeout. Or a bowl of cereal.

Yet, there are strategies to help you get cooking, even when you’re not feeling it.

First, consider your viewpoint. “If you frame it as an activity you are doing to nurture yourself, it’s very different from framing it as something you get done to survive,” Fani said.

Your surroundings also can help to put you in the frame of mind to make a meal.

“Dennis and I love to cook,” Angela Buttimer said. “We make a big event out of it. Turn on music. Have a glass of wine. Dancing in the kitchen is one thing we use to reduce our stress.”

Elements such as lighting, as well as the tidiness of the workspace, can contribute further toward making the kitchen more relaxing, experts say.

“Clear the stuff out of the kitchen that you don’t need. Make the place a haven. It doesn’t have to be a big haven, just well-organized and clean,” said chef and cookbook author Nancy Waldeck.

Waldeck has facilitated cooking classes at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital for a dozen years, after being diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer. Apart from teaching healthy cooking classes, she encourages participants to keep their kitchens stocked with essentials, because there’s nothing more frustrating than wanting to make a meal, and realizing you don’t have what you need.

“I want people not to dread the cooking experience, but to be able to enjoy it,” Waldeck said.

Also, the dish you decide to make can be a determining factor in how you feel, especially if it is one filled with memories.

“What we choose to cook can have a feeling of being closer to people,” Angela Buttimer said. “Maybe with COVID, we can’t connect in person, or they have passed already. When we cook, it takes us right back to that person and place.”

“I am incapable of making a pot of soup without thinking of my maternal grandmother,” Dennis Buttimer said.

Finally, he added, don’t feel bad about carving out the time and space to cook. “Give yourself permission to cook in the kitchen, relish the food, and savor it,” Buttimer said. “By feeling better, you are better able to help the world in general.”

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