Does Baking Actually Help Mental Health?

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Could your habit of breaking out the bread-maker and creating ever more elaborate macarons actually be helping your brain? The idea of baking as a therapeutic tool has emerged with force over the past five years, and it'd be tempting to think that it might be the cure for all your ills, from minor malaise to serious mental illness. Unfortunately, the psychology behind baking therapy is a bit more complicated; it's not as simple as dusting flour over your hands and kneading all your issues into a nice loaf.

Baking is the most ancient of human technologies; new evidence recently unearthed suggests that Australian Aborigines have been baking cakes and loaves for millennia, outstripping even the ancient Egyptians as the first bakers in human history. But the idea of it as a benefit for our mental health has evolved only relatively slowly, likely because cooking for yourself as a calming leisure activity only really appeared with the invention of leisure itself in early modern Europe, and the notion of pleasure-baking (instead of eating baked goods produced by servant) is even more recent than that. Now, however, baking is the new big occupational therapy. But what can it really do, and what are its limits?

Get your mixing bowl, assemble the agave nectar and the crushed hazelnuts: it's time to delve into the possibilities of baking as therapy for mental health, and whether it's all it's cracked up to be. (Yes, that is an intentional egg pun.)

What Baking Can Do For Your Mental Health

The real boon for baking as a potential part of self-care for those with mental health worries came in 2004, with the release of a study in the British Journal of Occupational Therapy that indicated many positive benefits for those who grab a rolling pin. As part of the spectrum of occupational therapy, which is the practice of supervised activities in a therapeutic context (what the American Occupational Therapy Association calls "health and participation in life through engagement in occupation”), baking was found to be particularly helpful to people with mental health disorders, from schizophrenia to severe depression.

The study found that baking "improved concentration, increased coordination and built confidence, leading to an increased feeling of self-esteem," while also "providing purpose and meaning, as well as a real and tangible way of filling time." And the idea enjoyed a renaissance in 2013, when the winner of a British baking show, John Whaite, made worldwide headlines by advocating baking as a helpful therapy for his manic depression.

In their report on the practice in 2014, the Wall Street Journal explains that supporters of baking as therapy point to it as beneficial in several ways. In one sense, it emphasizes the importance of eating; in another, it focuses attention away from rumination or emotional distress onto a deeply involving task, and provides tangible goals and marks of success at the end (i.e. cake!).

The RSCPP, a mental health therapy connection service, investigated the practice in 2014 with three separate psychotherapists, all of whom spoke positively of the idea. One pointed out that "mental illness or personal distress can be isolating or alienating, disconnecting the individual from the community or the desire for life," and that baking in communal environments would likely help that element, while another explained that baking provides "a simple focus, encouraging you to be mindfully present in the moment without over-thinking. Baking also carries strong symbolism in our culture, associated with nurture and goodness, which may contribute to a sense of comfort and stress-relief."

The communal aspect of baking is also pointed out by the Huffington Post, who explain that the science on the mood-lifting power of giving, or creating things for the benefit of others, is a pretty solid reason to make a cake. This is the perspective behind the Better Health Bakery, a mental health charity that takes on trainees to give them appropriate skills, help them give to the community, and hopefully assuage their symptoms in the process. But, it seems, there are distinct limits to baking therapy's usefulness in serious mental illness.

... And What It Can't Do

You might note a pattern in all the benefits posed by baking: they're mostly to do with managing the symptoms or consequences of mental illness, rather than actually dealing with their sources. This isn't a bad thing. A lot of day-to-day work with a mental illness is concerned with management; as a severe depressive, I can attest that much of the "work" involved with treatment is in daily monitoring and self-care. But it does mean that baking therapy may have its distinct limits.

Dr. Cosmo Hallstrom, a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists who was interviewed by the BBC about the possible value of baking therapy, warned that it is hard to quantify the real impacts of baking on mental health. It suffers from the same difficulty as the rest of occupational therapy for mental illness: actually measuring impact is tricky. But the evidence in favor of occupational therapy in general is pretty good: a 2009 study of people with psychotic conditions, for example, found that 12 months of occupational therapy reduced their symptoms, and Everyday Health reported in 2012 that occupational therapy helped schizophrenics "integrate... into their communities".

It's also necessary to point out that occupational therapy is usually seen as part of a combination of different treatments for mental illness, not as the be-all and end-all. In other words, it likely won't shift or address deep psychological issues on its own. Baking for therapy needs to be added onto other methods, like talking therapy, medication, or residential programs; the Mayo Clinic recommends a "combination of treatments" as the best approach to serious mental difficulties.

One interesting attempt to mediate this gap has been proposed by Sara Barthol at Psychology Today: pie therapy, a form of group therapy where discussing mental health issues is combined with baking pies over a four-hour period. But one thing's pretty clear: even though baking may give you some serious meditative pleasure and refocus you, it's not wise to rely completely on your cupcakes to manage serious mental difficulties. Unfortunately.

Images: Vladimir Vladimirov/E+/Getty Images, Giphy