Cooking Therapy

In a perspective piece written for the Health and Wellness section of the Washington Post, one woman described her struggle with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and the positive, therapeutic effect that cooking provided her (Friedlander, 2020). She explained how she used cooking as a coping strategy to ease her anxiety during extremely stressful times in her life, such as her parent’s divorce, her father-in-law’s hospitalization and the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. But why is this the case? 

Figure 1: A depiction of GAD including various symptoms and feelings associated with the disorder (Living Resiliently Blog, 2018).

GAD is outlined in the DSM-5 (Diagnosis of Medical Disorders, 5th edition) as a syndrome of ongoing anxiety and worry in an excessive manner (Figure 1) (Gale & Davidson, 2007). Globally, it is estimated that 1-5% of the population has some form of GAD and another 5% have depression, amounting to millions of individuals globally (World Health Organization, 2021; Gale & Davidson, 2007). In the past, Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) has been used as the main and most effective treatment method of GAD (Gale & Davidson, 2007). CBT is a psycho-social intervention that focuses on challenging cognitive behaviors, as well as improving emotional regulation and personal coping strategies. However, anxiety management treatments are also extremely useful in GAD rehabilitation, hence why cooking therapy (CT) is now being introduced as an effective method of treatment and management (Figure 2). 

Figure 2: A flow chart of how CT can help reduce GAD and diminished mental health. By introducing a distraction task, like CT, anxiety is reduced leading to long-term growth and development.

Michael Kocet, a mental health councilor and professor, is credited with the emergence of CT in practice and defines CT as “the therapeutic technique that uses arts, cooking, gastronomy, and an individual’s personal, cultural, and familial relationship with food to address emotional and psychological problems[…]. [CT] involves an exploration of an individual’s relationship with food and how food impacts relationships, as well as psychological well-being and functioning” (Vaughn, 2017). Studies find that because CT requires both mental and physical coordination, individuals are unable to focus on their prior anxieties (Cerasa et al., 2019). In support, various attention-based studies conclude that multi-tasking is an ineffective method of task completion and instead focus is flipped from one task to another (Friedrich, 2021; Simons, 2021). Since CT requires individuals to focus solely on cooking, anxiety levels are decreased during CT sessions. Moreover, CT allows individuals to feel a sense of accomplishment and control, feelings that individuals with diminished mental health may not experience frequently (Levy, 2020). Plus, CT allows individuals to cook for themselves and have control over both their mental and physical wellbeing, two factors that are innately intertwined.  

CT can also be used to treat the stress associated with medical conditions and treatments. In one study done, burn-unit patients with severe trauma ties to their injuries were introduced to CT (Farmer et al., 2018). While at first, many of the individuals were further stressed by the kitchen environment, as many received kitchen-related injuries, 38% of subjects said that group CT assisted in mitigating their stresses and 78% said that CT distracted them from thinking about their injuries. A separate community-based study done in 2016 introduced 190 cancer patients to CT which resulted in significant improvements in their respective physical and emotional wellbeing (Barak-Nahum et al., 2016). These two studies are perfect examples of how CT could be used in a clinical setting to help mitigate the fear and stress associated with hospitals and treatments. Along with individuals with GAD, depression, stress, traumatic injuries, and cancer, CT has also been used to help improve behaviors of dementia patients.

While research and development of CT programs are still in their infancy stages, CT is beginning to join other creative-based therapies like music, drama, dance and art, at the forefront of creative-based treatment practices. Moreover, with the exponential increase in mental health crises during the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on physical, in-person therapy, CT has become a more apparent and realistic option for many people (Xiong et al., 2020). So, whether you are following a cooking-related TikTok trend like tomato-feta pasta, just playing around in the kitchen, or following a generation spanning family recipe, cooking is a perfect way to calm your anxieties, take a mental break, and have some fun! 

Now if you want to take a break, destress and eat some cookies, I I have attached one of my favourite recopies below. Hope you enjoy! 

Sarah’s Stress (and mess) Free Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies 

Preheat oven to 350oc. In a microwave-safe bowl melt ½ cup butter. Once fully melted, mix in ¾ cup brown sugar and 1tbs. Honey until dissolved. Add vanilla (measure this with your heart!), one egg, and stir. Once well combined add 1tsp. Baking soda and 1½ cups all-purpose flour, mix until combined. Add ¾ cup of chocolate chips (or just keep pouring the bag until emptied…we’re trying to combat stress here not heart disease!). Spoon the dough into a parchment lined baking sheet about 4cm apart and bake for 12 minutes. Let cool (or don’t) and enjoy! 

Citations

Barak-Nahum, A., Haim, L.B. and Ginzburg, K., 2016. When life gives you lemons: The effectiveness of culinary group intervention among cancer patients. Social Science & Medicine (1982), 166, pp.1–8. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.07.046.

Cerasa, A., Arcuri, F., Pignataro, L.M., Serra, S., Messina, D., Carozzo, S., Biafora, A., Ceraudo, C., Abbruzzino, L., Pignolo, L., Basta, G. and Tonin, P., 2019. The cooking therapy for cognitive rehabilitation of cerebellar damage: A case report and a review of the literature. Journal of Clinical Neuroscience: Official Journal of the Neurosurgical Society of Australasia, 59, pp.357–361. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jocn.2018.09.026.

Farmer, N., Touchton-Leonard, K. and Ross, A., 2018. Psychosocial Benefits of Cooking Interventions: A Systematic Review. Health education & behavior : the official publication of the Society for Public Health Education, 45(2), pp.167–180. https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198117736352.

Friedlander, J., 2020. Perspective | How cooking became the perfect recipe for my spiraling anxiety. Washington Post. [online] Available at: <https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/how-cooking-became-the-perfect-recipe-for-my-spiralling-anxiety/2020/03/20/a56d068a-4832-11ea-ab15-b5df3261b710_story.html> [Accessed 23 Sep. 2021].

Friedrich, F., 2021. Attention. [online] Noba. Available at: <https://nobaproject.com/modules/attention> [Accessed 23 Sep. 2021].

Gale, C., & Davidson, O., 2007. Generalised anxiety disorder. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1828319/> [Accessed 6 Nov. 2021].

Levy, J., 2020. Cooking Therapy Benefits for Stress, Mental Health and More – Dr. Axe. [online] Available at: <https://draxe.com/health/cooking-therapy/> [Accessed 6 Nov. 2021].

Living Resiliently Blog, 2018. Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder – Living Resiliently Blog. [image online] Available at: <https://livingresilientlyblog.wordpress.com/2019/02/22/symptoms-of-generalized-anxiety-disorder/> [Accessed 6 Nov. 2021].

Simons, D., 2021. Failures of Awareness: The Case of Inattentional Blindness. [online] Noba. Available at: <https://nobaproject.com/modules/failures-of-awareness-the-case-of-inattentional-blindness> [Accessed 23 Sep. 2021].

Vaughn, S., 2017. Dr. Michael M. Kocet, new TCSPP faculty, explores culinary therapy. [online] Available at: <https://www.thechicagoschool.edu/insight/from-the-magazine/michael-kocet-culinary-therapy/> [Accessed 7 Nov. 2021].

World Health Organization, 2021. Depression. [online] Available at: <https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression> [Accessed 6 Nov. 2021].

Xiong, J., Lipsitz, O., Nasri, F., Lui, L.M.W., Gill, H., Phan, L., Chen-Li, D., Iacobucci, M., Ho, R., Majeed, A. and McIntyre, R.S., 2020. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 277, pp.55–64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.08.001.


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