Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week (13-19 May) and 17th May was World Baking Day. The overlapping of these two events serves as a useful reminder of the therapeutic, meditative and mindful benefits of baking, particularly for relieving stress and anxiety.
The UK has witnessed a resurgence in baking over the last few years. Many would argue that we have the likes of Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood and the team behind the hugely popular BAFTA award- winning show The Great British Bake Off (currently filming its 10th series!) to thank for this.
In the UK, we are also seeing an increase in the number of people suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health difficulties. Mental health can affect anyone and doesn’t discriminate. In fact, over 25% of us will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in our life.
A collection of recent reports suggests that anxiety and unhappiness among young people is growing. According to the British charity YouthNet, a third of young women and one in 10 young men suffer from panic attacks. Anxiety, depression and panic disorders are nothing new, but the increase in people suffering from them is a recent trend.
So, how can we connect the pursuit of baking to mental well-being and find ways to use baking as a force for good? The answer is mindful baking. Simply put, mindful baking is about paying attention to oneself in the moment and not being in the past or the future, but really being there.
Baking is a wonderful way to practice mindfulness and ultimately improve one’s mood and reduce stress. From start to finish, the act of baking guides you to focus on the present, giving your mind some respite from those niggling thoughts and distractions. Selecting and weighing ingredients takes precision and focus, whilst the practical and tactile processes of getting your hands dirty mixing, kneading and feeling your ingredients requires you to tune into and trust your senses.
A peer mentor at our Rise Bakery recently asked, how we will know when the eggs and sugar are whisked enough? By really looking, feeling, smelling and even hearing the ingredients take shape over time, you start to feel confident in making the judgement calls on your own. Soon enough, you just know when the cake is cooked, or perhaps even more importantly, the steps you need to take to rectify a mistake and save your baked good. That belief in your own knowledge and sense of control can be incredibly grounding.
Combining ingredients together in creative ways to produce dishes that are the sum of their parts can bring a momentary sense of calm and control. As John Whaite, Winner of Great British Bake Off 2012 (diagnosed with manic depression 10 years ago) stated: "When I'm in the kitchen, measuring the amount of sugar, flour or butter I need for a recipe or cracking the exact number of eggs - I am in control. That's really important as a key element of my condition is a feeling of no control."
Whether you’re a keen baker, a complete beginner, an enthusiastic cake tester or simply looking for a new way to relax and unwind, here are Providence Row’s top 3 tips for mindful baking:
1. Prepare yourself and the ingredients: Give yourself time and space to focus on the task. Carefully read the recipe, imagine how your baked good will turn out, and think about the occasion it will bring or who you may share it with; a birthday, pudding, to be enjoyed with a cup of tea and a good book etc.
2. Focus on your senses: Really pay attention to your ingredients as you weigh and measure them; where have they come from? How do they feel? Engage your senses during the mixing or kneading processes, focusing on touch, and allow your mind to take you down memory lane as the smells of warm bread, cookies or cakes waft from the oven.
3. Enjoy engaging in the whole process, not fixating on producing a ‘perfect’ result: Take time to enjoy your baked good, share it and above all really taste it and appreciate the baking journey it took to get there.
The principle of mindful practice can be transferred to any part of your routine: running, art, writing, walking. With time and practice mindfulness (and baking) will become a piece of cake.