By Wilma Bedford
With the onset of the lockdown in March 2020 many people suddenly found themselves in a new daily pattern and even with too many hours to fill every day.
An interesting phenomenon that made its appearance is that many bored women and just as many men turned to the kitchen to find something constructive and creative to do. The outcome was surprising as many would-be chefs and bakers suddenly realised that they enjoyed putting a recipe together and conjuring up a successful loaf of bread, cake or pie from the oven. Even the mixing, sieving and kneading of ingredients had a significant effect on their mood and the stress disappeared. Kneading a large lump of dough gave them a feeling of calmness and control, even if it felt as if the world was collapsing around.
Research shows that pottering around in the kitchen results in stress relief, control of emotions and even social connections. During the lockdown and often boring months of isolation, baking and cooking often became a type of self-care – and for some it even lead to a new, satisfying and profitable career.
Creative activities can bring about psychological healing. Small, creative tasks can make us feel happier and elicit more positive emotions.
During the lockdown Nicole Farmer, who did research on the psychological and social benefits of cooking, instinctively felt compelled to prepare comforting soups and cookies for her two children. “Cooking represents the shared human experience of food and to feed people with food, so I think it creates an opportunity for immediate positive emotions.”
The benefits of cooking are not only about the concomitant creativity, but the simple mechanics of cooking can make the process attractive and activate important brain centres.
According to researchers in Tel Aviv repetitive behaviour and rituals can relieve stress and anxiety. Farmer also mentions that although the physical movements that go with cooking, such as chopping vegetables or kneading dough, have not yet been studied, it is so that these movements could hold the same benefits.
Susan Biali Haas, a doctor, writer and speaker, says it gives our brains a chance to relax and rest when we use our hands to do something that will not require us to think too much about anything.
She explains that it also gives the brain a chance to work “behind the scenes”. While you are working with your hands you often experience a breakthrough in connection with a problem you have been struggling with for a long time or an idea that does not want to fall in place. When you’re busy with a task that requires repetition and therefore completely isolates your thoughts from the problem or question you’re struggling with, the solution will often pop up from nowhere.
Working in the kitchen makes people focus on what they are busy with and it can be positive, uplifting and empowering, according to Julie Ohana, a culinary art therapist.
She adds that with the current world situation due to the Covid-19 pandemic and no idea of what the future holds, the baking and cooking process leaves you with a feeling of creation and completion that can be intensely satisfying in a world over which you have no control.
Working with one’s hands is also very enjoyable. We used our hands for survival for thousands of years. Due to the advent of technology we simply push buttons and the minimum effort is required of us. Using our hands more could result in a healthy mind and the absence of this type of activity could contribute to anxiety, irritability, apathy, panic attacks and depression.
When we are feeling bored or stressed, many of us overeat, watch TV or hang out on social media. It can be relaxing but it often leaves us with a feeling of guilt afterwards. The internet can also keep us busy and distract our attention, but we don’t always feel contented afterwards. To literally see the fruit of one’s labour and the effort of creating something solid in an unstable world, can also leave you with a feeling of satisfaction and peace.
According to the job-finding website Monster our brain chemistry changes when we work with our hands. “The simple action of working with your hands, whether to repair your home’s electric wiring, doing masonry or simply just sweeping, creates altogether new neuropaths in our brains that would not have happened with less physical activity.”
In herbook, Lifting depression: A neuroscientist’s hand-on approach to activating your brain’s healing power, Kelly Lambert explains that deliberate activities and interactive experiences generate more intensive and penetrating reactions in your brain than a single pill can do. Consequently you begin to feel more in control of your environment and in touch with the world around you. “It relieves stress and anxiety and, more importantly, it builds resilience against the development of depression.”
If baking and cooking are not your thing, there are, of course, many other activities that can produce results that you can see, feel and touch and give a feeling of satisfaction and wellbeing. You could perhaps start a new hobby or dust and revive an old one you have neglected. Creating something – whether it be through art music, quilting, photography, gardening, carpentry or welding or simply scrubbing out a kitchen cupboard – could be exactly what your brain and body need. In the process you might find focus, peace, satisfaction end even happiness.
Brasted, C. Why cooking and baking fill a void. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/2021-01-28-why-cooking-and-baking-fill-a-void
Chun, G.S. The health benefits of working with your hands. https://crafstmanship.net
Haas, S.B. Working with your hands does wonders for your brain. https://www.psychologytoday.com