Food for the mind

10 Mins read

160 grams of sugar, four medium eggs.

Giacomo Leopardi often dedicated his poetry to describing how emotions in waiting for pleasure are stronger and in fact more pleasurable than those evoked by the pleasure you were waiting for.

I have found this usually happens to be true for anxiety, too, and that the wait for a panic attack to kick in can be worse than what is coming. The moment you are still perceptive of your self-control but in the know about how you are slowly losing it, how the chances are low to stop it from happening. It is a trembling, heart pounding, unawareness, but all the same far too much awareness of what is going on, a mixing often worse than the apparently unmotivated panic when it has completely seized you.

Psychologists suggest that in moments like these you must find something to anchor you to reality, a handhold, a focus. Some say that it is useful to try to understand what has put the feeling of panic into motion, so you can rationalise it, look at it from a different perspective and understand that it is only temporary. Solvable. Some say you should tell yourself something to find calm, like a mantra. Some say you should try to imagine yourself in a happy place. Some encourage breathing or finding something to focus on, to channel your cognition and perception, to ground yourself, like counting.

38, 39, 40. 40 grams of cocoa powder, 40 grams of flour.

Something that often works for me, is pairing deep breathing with something extremely practical that will garner my whole attention. It can be as trivial as braiding my hair, or cleaning, or tidying up, like books on the shelves, in alphabetical order, by genre, by rating, by a new and totally arbitrary order decided on the spot. Or baking, which is what generally provides me with the most comfort and relaxation.

There is a positive energy deriving from preparing food that can be a lifeline for your mind, making you feel like you have gained back its control, bringing you back to the ground. It is why it does not matter the time, if I can I will grab a bowl, gather basic ingredients and start baking, even if it is only whisking eggs, flour, and milk for crepes.

Many people find the same sort of comfort in cooking, be it for mere stress-relief or for dealing with more serious issues. There is something calming and mindful in laying the ingredients around a bowl, in the order they are meant to go in, a steadying purpose in carefully breaking the eggs, measuring, mixing, mind caught in the gravitational domain of following steps precisely and with a clear result to work towards.

Part of always more widespread ‘occupational therapies’ that are being used for dealing with mental health, schizophrenia and even for helping with disabilities, cooking has the advantage of being a methodical approach, in what it helps redirecting thoughts towards something that needs your undivided concentration. It has been proved to help keep away negativity, improve confidence and de-stress.

Baking is a therapeutic activity

Cooking for calmness [Flickr:star5112]

The British Journal of Occupational Therapy has published a research conducted on 12 patients admitted to mental health centres who were taking part in kitchen courses as part of their therapy. At the end of the treatment, it was observed how each of them had improved concentration levels and a higher sense of satisfaction.

In the past few years, many professionals and mental health associations have turned to cooking therapy as a way to deal with depression and anxiety cases. Although not meant to completely substitute canonical counselling, it is being explored as a complementary treatment for its rewarding mental and social benefits.

180 grams of butter, a pinch of salt.

The Newport Academy, a teen rehab centre in Connecticut, has been using cooking therapy to deal with mental disorders and addiction, teaching their young patients to cook their favourite foods but in a healthier version. They have discovered cooking to be a sugar-coater to counselling in the way, through specifically oriented behaviours and definite objectives, it occupies the mind and helps the patients fighting pernicious thoughts and behaviours, laziness and malaise, by converging one’s intents on all the steps in the cooking process.

The Shoreditch Trust, a charity in Hackney that works with people going through difficult periods in their lives, runs the Peace of Mind project, created with the purpose to offer support and group sessions to help Hackney residents with mental health and wellbeing, offering an anti-stigmatic approach and a safe space to re-build confidence and skills.

“We are part of something called the Hackney Council Wellbeing Network, a group of nine organisations in Hackney, and we all work together to offer different complementary therapies, different courses, and classes,” says Phoebe White, coordinator at the Peace of Mind project.

The project offers stress-management and physical and creativity activities to help the patients find an outlet for their struggles, running also cooking classes in partnership with the Food for Life project, which, under the Shoreditch Trust, helps people build a link between food and their mental health.

“The classes have usually around ten people and will run for two to two-and-a-half hours for around six weeks, so it is a long chunk of time and people will get to take the recipe with them, take a little bit of food with them, to share their creation with others,” says Phoebe as she shows me around the professionally equipped kitchen where these sessions take place.

“We get sometimes a rapid influx of clients, we always have new referrals to the project, but you often spot people who will do the same classes together, and they start to build up this friendly relationship with each other,” says Phoebe.

The aim is not only to involve people in a practical and social experience but also to teach them new skills that can aid in their condition and improve their life.

“It’s incredible the satisfaction people get from creating things from absolutely nothing, and then they have something they can take home and show people. They are so pleased with it and the level of satisfaction is enormous, people can’t believe they have done that in quite a few hours,” says Phoebe. “I think that teaching the skills and let the people be surprised by what they can achieve if they put their mind into something is definitely a huge thing.”

melted chocolate

Chocolate is a traditional pick-me-up [Flickr:Letizia Piatti]

The approach of practical involvement has thus revealed itself to be a successful support to psychotherapy. The Newport Academy reports that the patients are much more keen to engage in practical activity rather than normal dialogue sessions, which can become mentally draining and counterproductive.

Cooking is instead very entertaining and relaxing, it helps to normalise and gentle a treatment while also being meaningful and giving a sense of productivity.

Cooking classes in therapy do not only impact on mental processes but can also be a way to re-establish a routine, to retrieve those daily tasks that were lost because of depression.

200 grams of dark chocolate, a few spoons of powdered sugar.

Amanda is the head pastry chef in a bakery and has used baking as a way to come out of a transitional period of her life. “Baking is like a life-jacket sometimes. It has always been a refuge, in certain periods of my life more than others,” she says. She welcomes me into her kitchen wearing a sweater of pastel colours, hair held back.

The room smells intensely of the dark chocolate already melting on the stove in preparation for lava cakes, its pungent aroma proved to have beneficial effects on the mind, just like its consumption. Besides being a remedy to dementors attacks, as Remus Lupin maintained, chocolate contains in fact chemicals that produce serotonin and that combining with dopamine function as anti-depressants.

“There is something extremely satisfying in preparing food. It is the notion of making something that is extremely good out of basically nothing,” she says. “I realised at some point that baking was the only thing that would make me get out of bed. It is why I literally made it my job.”

Baking and cooking are methods to channel emotions that cannot be handled, substitutes for much more damaging actions. It all lays in the meaning of food as a nurturing element in life, as a source of sustenance and in the act of taking time to prepare something for yourself or for other people, that becomes a symbol of care, love, of looking after somebody else, of showing affection.

A study by anthropologist Richard Wrangham theorises that cooking is what made us humans, and while it is true that speaking about cookery as a therapy in a psychological or rehabilitation field might conjure thoughts of a ludic activity to merely offer recreation, in reality, it has plenty recognised benefits and purposes. It is tied to improvement of certain abilities, physical, cognitive and also behavioural. Cooking gives autonomy, faith in one’s own capacity, confidence in standing up as an individual who can provide for themselves and for others.

Add the sugar, a pinch of salt, the eggs and the flour to the melted chocolate, mix together.

Cooking can be expedient to aid social relationships, a different approach to fight behavioural disorders, since sharing food can be an easy way of starting to tackle social anxiety. “I think preparing food for someone can be extremely therapeutic. The fact that you are giving something to someone, something that you made, you are saying what you maybe couldn’t say with words. Or even cooking with someone, collaborating for the same result… it definitely is an activity that is good for our social interactions,” says Amanda.

molten lava cake

Theraputic desserts [Flickr:Szukini]

You might be feeling at your lowest, but still preparing food can give you a moment, like a breath of air, of cognition of being able to make something good, retrieving positive feelings, mindfulness. Preparing food is a nurturing act, almost primordial, and can let you connect with yourself and with others.

“We work with the Food for Life team and they run their own cooking classes throughout Hackney, so they tend to do classes on various housing estates, like community centres with big kitchens and local people will come and learn how to cook for the family, how to cook on a budget, but also how to have that shared experience of cooking something,” says Phoebe of the Peace of Mind Project.

“Once every three months we’ll put on a cooking class that is specific to this project. That is when we will refer our clients into it and for six weeks they will get together, learn skills on how to cook different recipes, how to cook healthy meals, but we find that the main benefit is also the social interaction. For lots of people sitting down and eating the meal with other people is something that they do not get to do, and obviously when they are working on preparing food they each work at different stations in our kitchen and it’s just really good to get people to interact, socially, because for our clients one of their main issues is social isolation, and that is something that has become quite prevalent lately,” she says.

“I feel like for me the altruistic aspect of it is the most important thing,” says Amanda, as the rich smell of the melted butter she is adding to the chocolate mixture fills the air. She whisks the mixture energetically one, two, three, four times.

Repeated wrist rotations, gaining a sense of the body, relaxing, stretching. Eyes on the mixture, from crumbly to velvety, to smooth. “But also psychologically; it is relaxing, it can be a pause from our frantic lives. Then there is the certainty of being in control of something. Baking is a science, and you need precision,” she says.

Butter the moulds, dust them in cocoa powder, pour the mixture in. Many people have admitted to finding themselves using baking as a comfort activity to deal with sadness or low moods. John Whaite, winner of the Great British Bake Off in 2012has revealed how for him baking has been a way to deal with his manic depression.

“It can’t cure it, but it helps,” he told the BBC in an interview, explaining how cooking is for him a way to channel negative thoughts into something productive. In his debut cookbook, Whaite has recounted his story, explaining how cooking helped with his diagnosis, even dedicating a chapter to recipes for lifting the mood.

Although cooking and baking can be beneficial to explore one’s relationship with the mind, to enhance creativity, food carries a nutritional aspect to it that cannot be ignored. Food prepping implies self-care above everything else, and for this reason in kitchen therapy being knowledgeable of the nutritious values and the ingredients becomes essential.

High levels of sugar in the blood and caffeine intake are known to affect the mood and cater to depression, while lack of vitamin aids to schizophrenia. Especially in therapy, therefore, a healthy nutrition is fundamental, as often pharmacological therapies for mental disorders are responsible for weight variations, which are known to also be causes or enablers of depression.

“We run a baking course last year which went really well, but because of the ethos of the whole charity we always try to do things to a healthy standard,” says Phoebe.

“So even when we did do baking, the food team would teach skills in knowing what flours to use, like wholemeal, or less sugar, and in our cooking classes they usually make a big meal and a dessert on the side, but it will always be sweets with dates instead of sugar. I think it is interesting for our clients because they might not know ‘oh I can make brownies with dates instead of sugar’ so it is good to teach that, but they still get that sort of wholesome vibe that comes with cooking and baking together,” she tells us.

Even with a healthy twist, cooking and even baking can still be powerful because of the role and perception cooking has in our culture, of an essential element to life, of goodness. And so, the whole process of choosing ingredients, understanding them, how to treat them best, the way each element needs to be cooked, the way the meal presented, becomes a way to heal yourself.

Take the cakes out of the oven, out of the mould.

There is something cooking can transmit, a sharp sense of realisation; even if you used it as a drain for all your bad emotions and feelings you still produced something that is nurturing, that is good, that is love, that is fuelling. If you and your messy mind produced that, you can make it.

Dust the cakes with powdered sugar, take a spoonful when it is still warm, let the molten heart liquid flow out.

Take a bite.

The bitter pungent taste of chocolate can be stronger than bitter thoughts.




Featured Image by Valentina Curci

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