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Flavors of Calm: Cooking as Therapy for Stress and Anxiety Management

By Dr. Alex Armitage, DNP, CNL, APRN, FNP-BC Specialist in Supportive Palliative Care and passionate advocate for holistic well-being.


Table of Contents


Introduction

I would like to start this blog with a challenge. Let’s make something together in the kitchen this week. Making one thing can shift your week for the better. Maybe one simple thing, like a fruit salad which does not even require you to turn on the stove. Or a stir fry or pot-roast for this cold, cold weather that we are experiencing.

Will you walk this path with me?

Let’s talk about this and allow me share with you why this is important …


Dr. Alex Armitage holding two winter squash

In my last blog article, I shared insights on managing anxiety without medication, inspired by my patient, Don, who found himself unable to use traditional anxiety medications. As we explored alternative methods to help him, Don mentioned his fondness for cooking. It was a simple joy he expressed, but it struck a chord with me. Cooking, even the most basic of dishes, can be a powerful tool in managing anxiety.


Why Cook for Stress and Anxiety Management?

Cooking is more than just a task; it's a journey of self-discovery and comfort.

Cooking is creative.

Cooking involves all your senses

Cooking allows you to reconnect with what resonates with you

Cooking allows you to reconnect with friends and family

Cooking allows you control

Cooking can help manage stress and anxiety

When you cook you make something that is beautiful that feeds not just your body but also your very being.


It hurts my soul when I hear someone say “I don’t cook.” For those who think they 'don't cook,' I invite you to reconsider. Cooking isn't just about sustenance; it's about nurturing your inner being and finding peace. There's a certain magic in the act of cooking – the way combining ingredients can transform into something greater, both in flavor and in spirit. It is the ultimate way to nourish both your body and your mind. In my next blog article I am going to look at what kinds of foods are good for our mental health, but for today let’s just focus on being in the kitchen and making something (anything) from scratch.


To me, cooking represents a beautiful blend of creativity and therapy. The process of cooking is an engaging one. It's not just about the end product, but about the journey – the colors, the sounds, and the smells that fill your kitchen. These elements have a way of easing your mind, taking you away from the day's stress and into a moment of creative tranquility. The result is not just a meal, but a celebration of your efforts, a dish to be shared and cherished, and at the end of this I encourage you to take a photo and post it to social media as a celebration. Remember to tag us @Complete Wellness Revolution on Facebook and @dralexwellness on Instagram


How Engaging the Senses Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety

The sensory experience of cooking is a natural antidote to stress and anxiety. Engaging our senses grounds us in the present moment and can have a calming effect.

  • Sight: The visual aspect of cooking – the vibrant colors of fresh produce, the browning of meats, the bubbling of a sauce – can be incredibly soothing. The process of watching ingredients transform provides a visual journey that can captivate and distract from stressors.

  • Smell: Aromas play a significant role in our emotional well-being. The smell of food cooking can evoke positive memories and feelings. For example, the scent of baking bread or simmering soup can provide comfort and a sense of home, easing anxiety.

  • Touch: The tactile experience of handling ingredients – kneading dough, chopping vegetables, stirring a stew – can be therapeutic. These activities can serve as a form of sensory therapy, reducing stress levels and increasing a sense of physical connection to the world.

  • Hearing: The sounds in the kitchen, from the chopping of onions to the simmering of a pot, create a unique auditory backdrop. These sounds can be meditative, helping to focus the mind and soothe anxiety.

  • Taste: Finally, the act of tasting as you cook not only aids in creating a delicious meal but also provides immediate sensory pleasure, which can be a powerful mood booster.

Cooking engages the brain in a way that can be both creatively fulfilling and psychologically therapeutic. By involving all our senses, it offers a holistic approach to managing stress and anxiety, making it not just a culinary activity but a form of self-care and mental health support.


Creativity in Cooking Can Lead to a Sense of Accomplishment

Creativity in the kitchen is more than just an act of preparing food; it's an expression of one's self, an exploration of one's tastes, preferences, and ideas. This creative process can lead to immense satisfaction and a strong sense of accomplishment.

  • Personal Expression: Cooking allows for personal expression in a unique and tangible way. When you experiment with different ingredients, play with flavors, or modify traditional recipes, you're putting a piece of yourself into every dish. This personal touch can lead to a deeper connection with the food you prepare and a greater sense of fulfillment upon completion.

  • Problem-Solving Skills: Creativity in cooking often involves improvisation and problem-solving. Whether it’s finding a substitute for a missing ingredient or adjusting a recipe to suit dietary needs, these challenges engage the mind in a positive and constructive manner. Overcoming these culinary challenges can boost confidence and provide a feeling of achievement.

  • Artistic Enjoyment: The artistic aspect of cooking – from plating to garnishing – allows for an aesthetic appreciation that goes beyond the taste. The visual presentation of a dish can be as rewarding as the flavors it holds. The joy of creating something visually appealing adds another layer of satisfaction to the cooking experience.


A close-up of no knead artisan bread


Nutritional Aspect of Cooking at Home

In our exploration of using cooking to manage anxiety and depression, one aspect that stands out is the critical role of nutrition. What we eat significantly impacts our mental health, influencing mood, energy levels, and overall well-being. This topic is so vital that we've already explored it in a previous blog post, "Good Mood Food: Fermented Foods and Happiness," where we delved into the importance of fermented foods for gut health and its connection to mental health. In the coming weeks, I'll dedicate an entire blog article to further exploring the relationship between diet and our mental health. We'll dive deep into how certain foods can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, explore the science behind 'mood foods,' and provide practical tips for incorporating these insights into your daily meals. Stay tuned for this essential piece, where we'll unpack the power of nutrition in supporting mental health and enhancing life quality.



Dr. Alex Armitage in the kitchen cutting bread

Strengthening Relationships and Boosting Emotional Well-Being

Cooking for others is much more than a mere act of preparing food; it's a gesture of love, care, and connection. This simple yet profound act can have significant impacts on both personal relationships and individual emotional well-being.

  • Building Bonds: Cooking for family, friends, or even colleagues is a way to strengthen bonds. Sharing a meal that you've prepared is like sharing a part of yourself. It creates a sense of belonging and fosters an environment of warmth and trust.

  • Expression of Love and Care: In many cultures, food is synonymous with love. Preparing a meal for someone is often perceived as an act of affection. It’s a non-verbal way of showing care and consideration for the wellbeing of others.

  • Shared Experiences and Memories: Cooking together can be an enjoyable social activity, creating shared experiences and fond memories. It’s an opportunity to learn from each other, share stories, and enjoy the camaraderie that comes with a shared task.

To bring this concept to life, let me share a personal story. A while ago, I organized a small cooking event for my team at work. We decided to make a simple meal together. Initially, it was all about following the recipe. But as we progressed, the kitchen was filled with laughter, stories, and the occasional good-natured banter about whose chopping skills were superior. That day, something changed in our team dynamics. We didn't just share a meal; we shared experiences, and our relationships deepened in a way that only a shared cooking experience could facilitate.


Another story that comes to mind is from a patient of mine, Sarah. She started cooking Sunday dinner for her family as a way to cope with her anxiety. Over time, these dinners became a tradition that her entire family looked forward to. Sarah shared how these cooking sessions became a healing process for her. She found joy and a sense of calm in planning the meals and the act of cooking itself. But more importantly, she found happiness in seeing her family come together, enjoying the food, and spending quality time. It wasn't just about the dishes she prepared; it was about the love and connection that those meals represented.


In both cases, cooking transcended its basic purpose of nourishment. It became a medium for fostering relationships, creating a sense of community, and enhancing emotional well-being. These stories are testaments to the power of cooking as a tool for social and emotional enrichment.


What should I Cook?

Simple cooking projects can be a great way to start experimenting with creativity in the kitchen. These projects don't require advanced skills or rare ingredients, yet they offer plenty of room for imaginative twists. Here are some things that I have tried in the past few weeks – a gallery of inspiration:


Minestrone Soup from Cookie and Kate

Homemade Soup from Scratch: Soup is a canvas for culinary creativity. Start with a basic broth and add ingredients based on what's available or desired. Herbs, spices, and various vegetables can turn a simple soup into a gastronomic delight. It’s also a great way to experiment with flavor profiles and textures. Here is one of my favorites soups, minestrone, from Cookie and Kate






Pumpkin, maple and pecan granola from The Minimalist Baker

  • Making Granola: Crafting homemade granola is a delightful foray into culinary creativity. The process allows you to mix and match a variety of ingredients like oats, nuts, seeds, and dried fruits, tailoring the flavors to your liking. You can experiment with different sweeteners, like honey or maple syrup, and add spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg for an aromatic touch. Making granola is not just about the combination of ingredients, but also about achieving the perfect texture – whether you prefer it chunky or fine, baked to a crisp or slightly chewy. The joy comes from watching simple ingredients transform into a delicious, healthy snack that can be enjoyed on its own or as a topping for yogurt and other dishes. Here is a pumpkin, maple and pecan granola that I make often, from The Minimalist Baker. Their website has lots of other granola recipes too.


No knead seeded oat bread from Sally's Baking Recipes
  • Baking Bread: There's something deeply satisfying about baking bread from scratch. It's a process that feels both primal and artistic. Kneading the dough is a therapeutic act, allowing you to connect with the food you prepare in a very tactile way. I’m a little lazy with this so I tend to lean towards the simple no-kneed breads. Watching yeast bring life to the dough, seeing it rise and take shape, is almost magical. There’s room for creativity in choosing the type of bread – be it a rustic sourdough, a soft brioche, or a hearty whole grain loaf. This recipe for a No Knead Seeded Oat Bread from Sally popped up in my email this morning and I am dying to try it on this cold Texas day! The smell of freshly baked bread filling your kitchen is a reward in itself, and slicing into a warm, homemade loaf is a moment of pure joy and accomplishment.


  • Fermented Foods: Now here's a challenge ... experiment with fermenting something. Okay, so this may be a little more of an advanced skill – but just a little. You can do what my sister did, and “borrow” a scoby starter from me to start her own kombucha which is much, much better than store-bought (traditionally these scoby "mothers" are gifted, but here’s where you can buy one. My latest brewing involves making fermented ginger beer from scratch or you could consider making some yogurt. Both my air fryer and my Instant Pot have yogurt settings to make things easy, although you do not need these gadgets – heating the milk on the stove and then incubating the yogurt in an oven with just the light on is how I did it for years before I had “technology.” There are lots of places that will sell you yogurt cultures, this is my favorite yogurt culture as I have found it easy and tasty. Growing those little probiotic bugs is very gratifying, simple and people will think that you are a culinary master!


Please note that we are too small a blog to make any money from links. These links to resources are just references that I hope you will find useful, there is no financial gain for me. I recommend them as (for the most part) I have tried them and had success. I hope that they bring you joy and success too.



Conclusion

Cooking is more than just a means to an end. It's a versatile and powerful tool that can enhance our mental, emotional, and social well-being. From the therapeutic act of baking bread to the creative exploration of making granola, each culinary endeavor offers a unique opportunity to engage our senses, express creativity, and connect with others.


Additionally, cooking for and with others can strengthen bonds and create lasting memories, enriching our emotional lives. Remember, cooking is an adventure that is as rewarding as it is nourishing. Whether you're a seasoned chef or just starting out, I encourage you to embrace the therapeutic benefits of cooking. Experiment with flavors, savor the process, and most importantly, have fun. Each dish you prepare is a step toward a more balanced, fulfilled, and connected life.


This is your call to action!

I challenge you to make something.

Choose something to make that you love, clear a time and just do it!

It will feel good. You will feel good.


Let me know how it goes on Facebook, take a photo, write a comment @Complete Wellness Revolution or Instagram @dralexwellness


What will you make today?




References

There is science behind cooking as therapy which can complement medical treatments Here are some articles that were used as food for thought for this article.

  1. Pollock, C., & Metos, J. (2016). Addressing the emotional health of college students through a therapeutic cooking class. Undergraduate Research Journal. Link to the article

  2. Buettner, L. (2011). A therapeutic cooking program for older adults with dementia: Effects on agitation and apathy. Link to the article

  3. Kim, J., Choe, K., & Lee, K. (2020). Effects of Food Art Therapy on the Self-Esteem, Self-Expression, and Social Skills of Persons with Mental Illness in Community Rehabilitation Facilities. Healthcare, 8. Link to the article


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