Saturday 1 October 2016

Weighing up the benefits of baking as a stress reliever

Published 26/04/2016 | 02:30

Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

Stress is ubiquitous. It cannot be avoided and has been present since time began. Nowadays, magazines, books and TV programmes offer tips on how to avoid it or deal with stress when it hits you.

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In the public mind there is little difference between normal stress responses and those that are abnormal. The tips that we all hear about and read include exercise, having time for yourself, not eating or drinking to excess, having a person to unburden to and so on. These only work for the everyday stresses that we all face such as the long commute to work, crying children wanting our time, disagreements at work and worries about family and friends.

Lifestyle practices certainly help us in coping with these.

Surprisingly, one lifestyle practice that I have not seen mentioned often in the multitude of articles written about stress, is baking.

That is all the more surprising given the vast number of baking programmes on TV and the god-like presence of the wonderful Mary Berry. There are also baking schools springing up in unusual places.

Google 'baking schools' and you will see that they exist all over the world from Dublin to Durban.

How does baking act as a de-stresser? It is a physical, earthy activity. For many in sedentary occupations, perhaps sitting in front of a monitor, we only use our fingers not our hands.

Turning flour and water into a piece of dough is very satisfying. Using your hands to mix it and knead it gives a sense of creating something from very little.

Baking requires total attention to weighing, kneading, whisking and folding. The repetitive nature of these actions are the equivalent of a physical mantra and are similar to the anxiety reduction that reciting some word or phrase induces without our noticing.

Baking is a highly focused activity and acts as a distraction from the worries and tribulations that occupy our minds.

The physical actions of kneading and whisking while not seeming to be exercise, in fact, are and are likely to release brain endorphins and make us feel happy.

Just as some people clean in an attempt to provide order where there is chaos in their lives, the physical action of kneading and the systematised addition of the ingredients in a particular order have a similar organising effect on our psyche.

Baking stimulates several senses as well as the release of feel-good hormones.

The feel of the soft flour on your hands, the smell of the ingredients before and during cooking, the sight of the glistening pie and the tasting during preparation and afterwards activate four of our five senses, particularly smell and taste.

Different textures or different flavours in the one product add an additional zip to our sensory system. For example walnuts and sultanas are often combined while lemon and apple are also a great taste combination. The smell of baking is probably one of the most powerful stimulants as it allows us to anticipate the taste of the end product. This may explain why estate agents encourage sellers to have bread baking in the oven during viewings!

Baking also stimulates our creative side.

Decorating the cupcakes, frosting the sponge with lemon drizzle or icing the Christmas cake enables us to be imaginative. Here too absolute focus on the task in hand distracts from the tensions that fill our thoughts. The end product, the fruits of our labour, helps us feel better about ourselves, especially if it looks nice.

We can truly say that we have achieved something. And if it is done with somebody else it can build team spirit.

To crown our achievements, baking not only makes us feel positive about ourselves but also makes others feel good. Giving joy to others is something that we all strive for. Some do it by being good listeners, others through simple acts of kindness and others by giving a hug. Helping people feel nourished by the products of our efforts is among the acts that brings solace to others. Add to this the physical health benefits of eating good quality food and the mind and body will be catered for.

Of course there's the washing up, the cleaning of the utensils, the tedious peeling of apples or pears and the worry about calories afterwards but we will likely be more than compensated by the contentment experienced in the preparation and sharing of this food with others at the same table.

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