Talk about flour power: Mounting scientific evidence proves that baking is one of the best forms of self-care. Even mental health pros swear by the therapeutic effects: “I consider this one of my greatest mental health strategies. I have declared Sunday ‘baking day’ for more than 15 years of my life,” says Tracy Thomas, Ph.D., psychologist and founder of Dr. Tracy Inc., an emotional training company in California. “I go into a baking zone for a whole day and just bake my buns off, pun intended,” Thomas says. But why, exactly, is baking so good for your brain, your mood, and beyond? Preheat your ovens and read on for the top six reasons from Thomas and Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., author of the best selling book Life Will Get Better and the founder and director of Horizons Developmental Resource Center in Caledonia, Michigan.
1. The Step-by-Step Process Makes You More Mindful
By now, you’ve likely heard about the concept of “mindfulness.” It’s the driving principle behind meditation and mindful eating, and simply involves being fully present and engaged in one task rather than multitasking or reacting to external distractions. Baking takes focus to follow the step-by-step instructions, and compared to other activities, it engages a lot of attention. Creativity, coordination, reasoning, and more are required to bake a successful end result, Thomas explains, and all of those factors team up to inspire a level of “focused-relaxation” that’s soothing for many people.
“Baking can be considered a mindful activity, meaning it focuses us on the here and now; which helps reduce stress and the kinds of future based thinking that contributes to anxiety,” Beurkens says.
2. Repetition Is Calming
The repetitive motions involved in kneading, mixing, measuring, and cake-decorating can be soothing and stress-reducing, Beurkens says.
Dedicating all (or at least most) of your physical and mental energy allows Thomas to reach that state of “flow” that many athletes and musicians refer to when they’re in the zone. “Flow increases self-connection and self-esteem, which are part of having a high emotional capacity,” Thomas says.
3. The Barrage of Sensory Inputs Is Uplifting
Touch, smell, sight, and (of course) taste are all engaged by baking. “The multi-sensory aspect of baking can be very therapeutic for some people, particularly if they have strong positive memories associated with baking those items. Our episodic memory, also called autobiographical memory, is very connected to how we process and feel about situations in life. Episodic memories incorporate the sensations experienced, such as the smell of bread baking in the oven or the feel of the dough as we knead it,” Beurkens says.
Speaking of those positive memories, that nostalgia can be a big mood-booster when you’re feeling down. “There are all kinds of neurochemicals [including serotonin and dopamine] released when people do something that triggers fond memories of eating and bakeries, and the great taste we are anticipating from our past,” Thomas says.
4. It Offers an Escape from Stresses of the Day
You’ll likely feel more grounded the moment you grab your mixer. “The physical activity and sensations associated with baking can be very grounding for people who feel anxious or overwhelmed, as it heightens awareness of their body and being present in the moment; both of which can reduce stress and improve mood,” Beurkens says. (By the way, cleaning can actually boost your mood, too!)
Plus, creative endeavors get us out of our heads and allow our heads and hearts to focus on something else besides the current stressor(s). “For people who struggle with anxious thoughts, these creative pursuits act as an effective distractor to get the mind focused on something more productive and beneficial than ruminating thoughts and worries. Research suggests that creative activities support more positive thoughts and feelings, which lead to stress-reduction and mood improvement,” Beurkens adds.
Noted at the top of each recipe: Total time. That’s an important detail not only for your schedule but for your stress levels, according to Beurkens. “Baking has a set start and end point that helps people feel a sense of control and purpose, both of which help stave off feelings of overwhelm and depression,” she says.
Baking has a set start and end point that helps people feel a sense of control and purpose, both of which help stave off feelings of overwhelm and depression.
—Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D.
The only thing that needs your mental, physical, and emotional intelligence is what’s headed for the oven. Plus you have all the power over the finished product. That focused attention fosters a strong sense of being capable and at ease, even when the world outside your kitchen might be hectic and messier than a sugar-coated countertop.
6. The End Result Is Sweet (and Good for Sharing)
That being said, keep in mind that the results are best enjoyed a bit and shared. “Baking is not a very effective form of self-care if the person is baking and then eating cake, cookies, breads, and brownies daily. Nutrition is such a major component of how we feel and function, and what we eat is very connected to our mental health. While baking can be a soothing and mood-supportive activity, it needs to be balanced with what is made and consumed,” Beurkens says.
For the most effective form of baking therapy, taste test a bit of your product (mindfully, of course), then share the rest with others.
“As an emotionally-sensitive, highly-driven, very creative person, I love to eat baked goods and I love giving myself an entire day to fill the house with sugary smells and to fill my belly with all the deliciousness that baking entails,” Thomas says.
The best part, though, is that the results of her baking escapades can be shared with her husband.
“Baking gives me a chance to get my husband into the kitchen more often, which gives us the opportunity to share some extra hugs and kisses. Overall, this is a mental health strategy I highly recommend,” she says.