Baking for mental health?

I’ve always been able to bake. My mum taught both my sister and I from a very early age. We didn’t always have money to go away on holiday or even on day trips. So, on the holidays or days that we couldn’t, we would bake with our mum.  I have great memories of the smell of Christmas cake filling the whole house, while loud Christmas songs filled our ears. Sometimes we even got to taste the Sherry (gross by the way). It wasn’t always cake, it was muffins, biscuits, cookies and sometimes even savoury things like sausage rolls or pies.

When my dad was alive, we were never allowed to cook dinner or do the dishes (yay!). Apparently, we made too much mess. But when he died, we had to start pulling our weight. My mum couldn’t do everything, she was under a lot of pressure to keep a roof over our heads because my dad was the breadwinner as well as having to deal with the emotional side of things too. Looking after two teenagers that had just lost their dad, probably wasn’t easy. So cooking is something that I also learnt to do as well as baking. As with most siblings, we were competitive. Because of that, it wasn’t always your bog-standard Cottage Pie or Spaghetti Bolognese that we cooked. We tried more complicated and extravagant dishes too, trying to create something better than the other sister.

Everybody needs to be able to cook (although it definitely appears some people can’t!), so I carried on cooking as I got older and when I moved out. I occasionally baked but it was maybe once or twice a year. It’s only in the last 16 months that I’ve actually delved back into baking. And of course, it was to prove a point, as are most of the things that I do these days. I was recalling memories of my childhood with Matthew (the gorgeous boyfriend) and of course, the topic of baking came up.  Matthew, despite being the super fit guy that he is, LOVES cake. Even capitalising the word, doesn’t truly emphasise how much he loves sweet things. Actually, he really just loves food. Me too. Unfortunately, I only have to look at a cake and I put on weight. As I recalled the memory of baking to him, he raised his eyebrow “You can’t bake!” he exclaimed. Of course, me being me… Took this as a challenge and the following week before I saw him again, I baked a cake.  He loved it.  Nearly every week since then, I’ve baked a cake for him. Every week I’ve tried to make something different or improve upon the last one I made. I’ve even tried more technical things such as baking a heart in the middle of the cake. He is always so appreciative of them that it never feels like a chore to make one. News travels fast in my workplace, someone saw that I was baking from posts I’d put up on my various social media platforms and then they too wanted cake (groan). I put it off for a few weeks but ended up caving in. They too enjoyed my cake (Especially Carlie!).

Baking, as well as bringing back memories. I realised was giving me a sense of self-worth too. People telling me how much they loved my cakes, asking for more even improved my confidence. It gave me something else to focus on, a hobby. My life in the last few years had become about getting away from my ex and working (to be able to do that!). There wasn’t room for much else. Working 5 nights a week had also made me too tired to pursue anything else, or at least I thought it did.  Not having hobbies or interests, can really affect your mental health. There’s even research that shows people that do have hobbies are less likely to suffer from stress, low mood and depression. Baking (and cooking!) has now become one of my hobbies. It makes me feel good about myself and concentrating on what I’m doing takes my mind off other things.  It was only a few weeks ago that I stood mixing cake batter with tears streaming down my face. I was suffering from an acute stress reaction, that was beginning to lead me down the path of depression. Baking the cake didn’t solve my problems but it stopped me from ruminating over them, it took my mind off things for an hour or so and it stopped me from as I always do, thinking about the worst-case scenario. After rambling on for ages (as I usually do). I’ll get to the subject of why baking could help your mental health.

Baking can help lower the levels of cortisol and epinephrine. Both of which are stress hormones. Lowering these hormones in turn is good for lowering your levels of stress and anxiety. And in turn (another one) this can have an impact on your sleep, immunity and blood pressure. Probably much more too. I guess this shows that baking is also good for your overall health too.  While I was researching for this blog post I found a study that found people who engage in small creative projects such as cooking and baking more often than not felt more enthusiastic (for someone with anxiety and depression – this is a great thing!) about what they did the next day.

Baking yourself up some self-confidence

When you choose to bake (or cook) you’re giving yourself an achievable goal. One that can be met (solving the world’s problems in a day, by yourself is not an achievable goal – I need to remember that). Setting yourself an achievable goal, when you meet it, raises self-esteem. When I finish making a cake, I take a step back and feel proud of what I’ve achieved. Hearing Matthew, my work colleagues and friends/family on social media give me praise and feedback for my cakes I feel good about myself, it makes me want to do more. Everyone loves a bit of praise, don’t they? Even if it is embarrassing. My self-critical thoughts (I have a lot of them!) are outweighed by the positivity I get.

Creativity is key

When I’m baking a cake, I follow a recipe. Sometimes after I’ve baked a cake, or received feedback (and trust me, Matthew gives it to me! Haha). I’ll tweak the recipe. Whether that’s adding more coffee powder to a coffee cake, or more vanilla essence to a cake. Using a different cake pan, baking at a different temperature… the list goes on.  Thinking of these changes and concentrating on doing them focuses my mind. I want to make the perfect cake, so I need to clear my mind to do it. The average person has 6,000 thoughts per day; so, if I have to clear my mind when baking a cake, that means the self-critical, negative ones too? Sounds like a major plus point to take up baking, doesn’t it? Or even any other creative hobby/ project.

Building up relationships with baking

As I mentioned above, I used to bake with my mum and my sister. These baking memories are one of the happiest memories I have from growing up. Competing my sister made me closer to her, even if it didn’t at the time (she’s a sore loser – Jodie, don’t even come at me saying you aren’t. You used to flip monopoly boards over if you lost, remember?). Cooking at school, in food technology we had a lot of fun. Throwing flour at each other, laughing at our mistakes, laughing at each other. Immaturely likening sticky white things to ejaculate (Yeah, gross. But funny at the time nonetheless). I can’t think of a time that I’ve ever baked with friends or in a group setting since I was a kid. But I imagine it would be fun too. When I’m not feeling great, even if I don’t feel like it being around other people it really does help. Isolation is proven to not be healthy, because it can trigger a spiral into depression. As we’ve seen with the global pandemic.  I’m not saying isolating to stop the virus is a bad thing but it has proved that very point.  During the pandemic apart from Matthew, I couldn’t share my cakes or cooking. I often posted pictures of them on social media though. So, I could share them virtually, even if they didn’t get a taste of the very delicious cakes – you missed out. It started conversations and gave a feeling of not being so isolated.

Burning calories with baking. Huh?

Ok, so this one is a bit of a reach really but I assure you it’s true. Consuming cake is not always great for the waistline unless you’re one of those lucky people with a super amazing metabolism (Yes Olivia, Matthew… I’m talking about you assholes!). While eating cake, is effectively consuming calories… that we probably don’t need. You’re also burning them while you’re baking. Trust me, kneading dough, rolling it out, mixing or whisking for what seems forever is definitely a workout for the arms! Then there’s the dreaded cleaning up afterwards. Any movement is better than none. I know when I’m depressed, I barely move. Getting out of bed or getting off the sofa seems like an impossible task mentally and of course, mental health has a direct link with our physical health.  Perhaps if you have a disability that stops you from exercising, cooking might be a great way for you to get some movement into your life too? You could get a kitchen stool, to aid with not being able to stand up maybe?

Feel good baking

Lastly, I’ve recently seen some adverts while scrolling through Facebook and webpages (damn those cookies and algorithms that track what we’re searching for!). About baking for dementia. You can find more about this here. Be quick, it’s happening between the 25th of April and the 1st of May. If you’re too late for that, a quick google will find plenty of other causes you can bake to raise money for too. As well as baking for yourself and others to improve your mental health, why not do it for the feel-good factor of raising money for your favourite charity. Doing something (doesn’t just have to be baking!) to help others gives makes you feel good. And what does making yourself feel good do? – Yep, you’ve guessed it, Improves your mental health.

Can’t bake? Everyone can bake! Just find a simple recipe and give it a try, or why not just buy one of those cake mixes you can find in a supermarket? It’s still baking, it’s still producing something you can be proud of! Still not for you? Find another hobby or interest, it’s not just baking that can improve your mental health. Any type can!

A side note:

I haven’t had a lot of engagement on my blog or even my Facebook page. I do get some on Instagram. But I really do hope it’s reaching somebody, maybe even making a difference. I’d love some feedback, on what I can do differently, and what can I improve on? Or I’d love to see your baking creations too! So, please feel free to send them to me.

A thirty something from down south (Cornwall, UK). People who like me tell me I'm funny, sarcastic and have no filter. People who don't would probably say I'm a bit of a bellend. I'll let you make your own mind up.

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