Stressed? Bake it off — the continuing popularity of stress baking

Jennifer R Baumer
May 16, 2019 · 6 min read

Whatever your politics, let’s just note that the number of people doing something called stress baking — and experiencing stress in general — began to rise in 2016. Draw your own conclusions.

In May 2017 the American Psychiatric Association released its annual report, reflecting on anxiety in America. It was reported that two-thirds of Americans are nervous about health care and safety for themselves and their families; one-third are more anxious than they were at the same time in 2016.

Not surprising then, that over the past several years there’s been a rise in things that can help us relax. Unsurprisingly, baking is on the list. I mean, is there anybody left who doesn’t know that stressed spelled backwards is desserts?

Being creative is one way to deal with stress and baking can be a quick, easy way to be creative without leaving home — or without leaving home for longer than it takes to pick up ingredients.

There are other reasons stress baking is popular. Baking is cheap, for one thing. If you have some of the basics on hand — unbleached flour, sugar, salt, eggs and maybe the milk — you can buy any remaining ingredients and make a batch of cupcakes for less than $20. Maybe less than $15. Or $10. Depends on what you want to put in and on the cupcakes, whether or not you already have cupcake tins and wrappers, and how fancy you want to get.

Baking is friendly. Kind of. All those people out there avoiding carbs might find it stressful to be confronted with cupcakes, cookies and clover rolls, but a cookie is essentially friendly. They also come in distinct units, so it’s possible with a little self-control to eat just one cookie. Honest.

Baking is concrete (though the results shouldn’t be). Which means for people who work with abstracts or ideas or intellectual property or online where they never produce something physical, baking produces something tangible. And edible. And hopefully wonderful. It’s satisfying to create something you can hold in your hand. It’s even better when the thing you’ve created has a definite, positive purpose. Best of all is when you can eat the thing you’ve held in your hand, that had a definite, positive purpose, and which tastes wonderful.

Baking is finite. There’s a beginning, middle and end. Even if you’re making artisanal breads, beginning with a starter for which you capture wild yeast, there’s still a definite beginning of the project and a definite end. Absolutes can be reassuring. Actual endings are reassuring. Flipping through my Erin Condren planner a couple days ago I read the quote, “Arriving at one goal is the start of another” and rather than being reassured I kind of felt daunted. Yeah, without a clear follow up or next goal, I’ll go looking. Eventually. But it’d be nice to have time to take a breath before that next goal showed up.

Baking is repetitive and mindless enough to offer mindfulness. In a world where more and more repetitive tasks are done for us, making something and shaping it once the precise, measuring bits are taken care of is meditative. I used to wash dishes when stuck on a piece of fiction I was writing. The running water, the mindless but purposeful activity, the sameness of each act usually freed something up.

The same can’t be said for loading the dishwasher. I’m aware of every item I stick inside and how best to Jenga it into place and that there are always those last few things that simply won’t fit. I’m so aware, in fact, that if I had a creative thought, I’d instantly leave the dishes hanging and go write it somewhere rather than mull it over and go on with my task. I’m so aware of what I’m doing I often just listen to an audio book.

However the results turn out, when you’re baking, you’re in control. Psychologist Linda Blair writing for The Telegraph stated one of the allures of baking in our stressed, hectic, fast-paced world is that it involves all five senses, not just the visual. The scent of cookies baking can summon thoughts of home or somewhere safe and welcoming. After all, we don’t stop to bake cookies in the middle of an actual emergency. (That’s a little too much stress reduction — maybe panic and solve the emergency and then bake as a reward?) The scent of baking bread seems to have an universal effect that touches the collective psyche — it bypasses backgrounds. Step into a house where someone is baking bread and almost everyone of us reacts the same: we pause and take a good long breath, inhaling the scent.

Baking is scalable. Start with cookies. They say (that’s the authoritative “They”) that cookies are hard to screw up and I’ll agree that they’re friendly in the sense that most cookies don’t care if you’re creating them at sea level or, like me, at 5200 feet. But though they’re easy and user friendly and don’t take a lot of ingredients, they’re not infallible. I’ve had cookies melt, and those were recipes I’d followed correctly. I’ve had them turn into rocks and I’ve had them take two times longer to cook than the recipe claimed (at the same time that everything else in my oven was coming out within one or two minutes of the time the recipe listed).

Years ago I found a cookie in some battered cookbook which was stuffed with dried apricots and seeds and nuts and when I tried one when they were still warm, it was the world’s dullest cookie. I allowed them to cool and discovered they were still blah. But I have a really hard time throwing away food. I hate wasting it! So I wrapped them up and put them in the freezer. Then at some point I wanted a cookie and unwrapped one and took a bite — and fell in love. How they were different frozen I don’t know, but something in the fruit came through, sharp and clean tasting with the hint of sweetness from the cookie itself. Whatever, I’ve made probably a dozen batches of them since discovering that.

Another mistake that turned out curious was a recipe for what should have been simple chocolate cookies with, I think, chocolate chips. I have no idea what I was doing as I worked, but I managed to leave out the flour. All of it. Every ounce. I then baked them and they came out droopingly soft and a bit greasy because the butter didn’t quite know what to do with itself. They were also terrific! Very chocolatey, very tasty and not overly sweet if I remember right. My husband adored them. Since it was half the batter that I’d baked up already, I mixed half the flour into the remainder and made the cookies like they were supposed to be made. They came out tasting like chocolate pop-tarts. I have nothing against Pop-Tarts, but I’d never try to make them myself on purpose.

Mistakes aside, Blair points out that in the kitchen, we have control. Whether it turns out right or not, the project is yours to control. Plus it’s a choice — we have to eat whether that means finding something simple to pull out of the fridge or a multi-course gourmet meal. But baking is a choice. We don’t have to bake.

“I consider baking to be such an excellent tonic that I would encourage anyone who feels stressed, overloaded or burnt out to start doing some serious baking — and the sooner the better,” said Dr. Linda Blair, MD, Ph.D., in The Telegraph, October 5, 2014.

Stress and anxiety have deleterious effects on both physical and mental health, according to Maria A. Oquendo, MD, Ph.D., APA President. Seems like anything that could calm us down would be a good thing.

… have a cupcake.

Looking for recipes to let off some stress? High Desert Bakery is a virtual bakery — okay, a blog — offering high altitude variations for tasty things to bake.

Helping creativity, beating depression … no wonder we all love Bake Off — The Telegraph October 5, 2014

The Rise of Anxiety Baking — Amanda Mull — The Atlantic December 18, 2018

Majority of Americans Say They are Anxious about Health; Millennials are More Anxious than Baby Boomers — San Diego, May 22, 2017 American Psychiatric Association

Jennifer R Baumer

Written by

Writer, runner, baker, blogger, desert rat.

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