The Emotional Benefits of Cooking

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Whether you’re drowning your sorrows in a pint of Blue Bell ice cream or eating your feelings at the Waffle House, there’s no doubt that eating is therapeutic. As anyone who has found themselves beating eggs, whipping cream, and pounding out biscuit dough can attest, cooking can be pretty therapeutic, as well.

While any Southern grandma would probably scoff at the need for a study on the idea of cooking as therapy, because, of course, retreating to the kitchen to whip up fried chicken, collards, and corn bread is good for the soul, one study foundthis link opens in a new tabthat baking classes boosted confidence and increased concentration. Another study revealed that a little creativity and creation in the kitchen can make people happier. That study, published in the this link opens in a new tabJournal of Positive Psychologythis link opens in a new tab, suggests that people who frequently take on small, creative projects like baking or cooking report feeling more relaxed and happier in their everyday lives. The researchers followed 658 people for about two weeks, and found that small, everyday projects in the kitchen made the group feel more enthusiastic about their pursuits the next day, food website Munchies reportsthis link opens in a new tab.

Being creative for a little while each day made people feel like they were “flourishing”—a psychological term that describes the feeling of personal growth. “There is growing recognition in psychology research that creativity is associated with emotional functioning,” Tamlin Conner, a psychologist with the University of Otago in New Zealand and lead author on the study told The Telegraphthis link opens in a new tab.

Cooking can be so good for your emotional wellbeing that, as The Wall Street Journal reportsthis link opens in a new tab, therapists are now recommending cooking classes as a way to treat depression and anxiety, as well as eating disorders, ADHD and addictionthis link opens in a new tab. According to the counselors who spoke to the WSJ, cooking can help “soothe stress, build self-esteem and curb negative thinking by focusing the mind on following a recipe.”

Psychologists believe that cooking and baking are therapeutic because they fit a type of therapy known as “behavioral activation,” the Wall Street Journalreported. These activities alleviate depression by “increasing goal oriented behavior and curbing procrastination.” Cooking can help people focus on a task, which can give them a sense of power and control that they might not naturally have on their own in their daily lives outside the kitchen. “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,” John Whaite, a baker who won The Great British Bake Off in 2012, told the BBCthis link opens in a new tab. “That’s really important as a key element of my condition is a feeling of no control.” Whaite was diagnosed with manic depression in 2005 and used baking to help stabilize his moods by providing small tasks to focus on.

When you’re cooking, you must be constantly focused, prepping ingredients, stirring the roux (or whatever you’re cooking), adjusting the seasoning, monitoring the cooking process—all of which can be helpful techniques in keeping your mind off of things it’s better not to focus on. It’s a bit like meditation, but with tastier output, and can be very useful in treating some forms of mental illness, The Guardian reportedthis link opens in a new tab. In short, it’s the ultimate in self-care—calming, mindful, creative, keeping you from dwelling on things, and with cookies or pot roast at the end of it all.

While cooking for yourself can offer plenty of soothing and potentially delicious perks, when you cook for other people there’s an added benefit. Namely, cooking for others connects you to your community and helps you feel like you’re providing a needed and useful service. While any form of altruism can make people feel happy and connected to othersthis link opens in a new tab, cooking for others helps people fulfill needs and that is important. Culinary arts therapist Michal AviShai told Huffington Postthis link opens in a new tab, that “giving to others fills us in so many ways. And even more so when it’s cooking because feeding fulfills a survival need, and so our feeling of fulfillment comes not only from the good of the act of giving, but also the fact that we have ‘helped’ in some very primal way.”

Through the combination of self-care, creative output, mindfulness, and a sense of control, cooking for yourself or others can be a huge boon to your mental wellbeing—although your grandmother probably already knew that.

10 Surprising Health Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

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As someone who strives daily to be the best I can be, to be present in the moment, minimize stress and appreciate the beauty and preciousness of life, I’m always keen to learn about scientifically-proven new health benefits of mindfulness meditation.

Get better sleep.

Anyone who’s suffered the lingering mental and physical effects of a poor night’s sleep on a regular basis, as I have on numerous occasions in the past, can appreciate this all-important benefit from mindfulness meditation: better sleep. In fact, research with older adults diagnosed with sleep disturbances found that the practice resulted in significant short-term improvement in sleep quality by remediating sleep problems. Researchers noted this improvement apparently carried over to “reducing sleep-related daytime impairment that has implications for quality of life.”

Make progress toward your weight-loss goals.

If you’ve struggled with yo-yo fluctuations in weight and tried many fad diets and weight-loss crazes, it might be motivating to learn that mindfulness meditation has been shown to be a good strategy to support weight-loss goals. A clinical study involving overweight and obese women found that mindfulness intervention for stress eating, while not designed to induce total weight loss, did stabilize weight among those who were obese. Researchers also found that greater frequency of eating meals mindfully was slightly related to weight loss, noting that, “Minimally, these techniques may support weight maintenance efforts, and actual weight loss might occur for those participants who eat a high proportion of meals mindfully.”

survey of American Psychological Association licensed psychologists by Consumer Reports found that mindfulness, along with cognitive therapy and problem-solving, are “excellent” or “good” weight loss strategies. That’s because the focus of dieters should be more on the role their emotions play in weight management, rather than solely on exercise and calorie control or eating less.

Lower your stress levels.

It’s a fast-paced society we live in, which contributes to and exacerbates everyday stress. Learning how to control or minimize the effects of stress on body and mind is important in overall health and well-being. So, it’s refreshing to know that a review of 47 clinical trials found that mindfulness meditation programs show “small improvements in stress/distress and the mental health component of health-related quality of life.” Another studyfound that focusing on the present through the practice of mindfulness can reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Decrease loneliness in seniors.

Getting older has its challenges, yet relationships can be deeply satisfying and personally enriching. For many older adults, however, loneliness due to the loss of a spouse or partner can be made worse when there are concurrent medical or psychological conditions or issues to deal with. One study found that an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program reduces loneliness and related pro-inflammatory gene expression in older adults.

Banish temporary negative feelings.

Sitting all day at a desk or computer is not good for your overall health and well-being. The often-recommended advice to get up and move is well-founded in research.  A study assessing college students’ daily waking movement-based behaviors found less momentary negative affect from movement with mindfulness in mind and suggested that incorporating mindfulness into daily movement may lead to better overall health benefits.

Improve attention.

Researchers found that brief meditation training (four days) can lead to enhanced ability to sustain attention. Other improvements from brief meditation training included working memory, executive functioning, visuo-spatial processing, reductions in anxiety and fatigue, and increased mindfulness.

Manage chronic pain.

Millions of people suffer with chronic pain, some following an accident that leaves them with a long-term debilitating medical condition, some as a result of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) after serious injury during combat deployment, others due to diagnoses with cancer. Managing chronic pain in a healthier way is the focus of much current research. Indeed, the search for and clinical trials of alternatives to medication to help patient cope with chronic pain continues to gain momentum. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a therapy that combines mindfulness meditation and yoga, has been found to result in significant improvements in pain, anxiety, well-being and ability to participate in daily activities.

Help prevent depression relapse.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), according to a growing body of research, may prove beneficial in preventing depression relapse. A particular strength of the mind-body technique is how it shows participants how to disengage from the kind of highly dysfunctional and deeply felt thoughts that accompany depression. A 2011 study found that MBCT is an effective intervention for depression relapse in patient with at least three prior episodes of major depressive disorder (MDD). Another study found that MBCT provided significant relapse protection for participants with a history of childhood trauma that left them with increased vulnerability for depression.

Reduce anxiety.

Feeling anxious? Researchers have found that even a single session of mindfulness meditation can result in reduced anxiety. For the study, researchers focused on the effect of a single session of mindfulness meditation on participants with high levels of anxiety but normal blood pressure. They found measurable improvements in anxiety following the single mindfulness meditation session and further anxiety reduction one week later. Researchers suggested that a single mindfulness session may help to reduce cardiovascular risk in those with moderate anxiety.

Increase brain gray matter.

Along with the well-documented benefits of mindfulness meditation, another surprising finding of the mind-body practice is that it appears to increase gray matter in the brain. A controlled longitudinal study investigated pre- and post-changes to gray matter that could be attributed to participation in MBSR. Researchers found that increases in gray matter concentration occurred in the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction, and cerebellum. These are the regions involved in memory and learning processes, regulation of emotion, self-referential processing and taking perspective.