This week (4th-10th February 2019) is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. The school my youngest daughter, Alice, attends is encouraging the children to think about activities they do which help promote positive mental health. Alice is a singer. She loves it. She’d sing all day everyday if things like school work, sleeping and eating didn’t get in the way. And she’s very good at it. She’s taken her first two grades and got 99% and 95% for her results! *Proud mum moment* But more importantly than this is how she feels when she sings. If you ask her she’ll tell you that she gets completely wrapped up in the song, in the lyrics, in the tune. And, here’s the most crucial part, it makes her happy.
The current thought in psychology circles is that taking part in a creative activity regularly can have very positive outcomes in terms of how you feel and your mental health in general. Alice has her grumpier moments as we all do, but on the whole I’d say she’s one of the happiest people I know. So these psychologists might be right eh? Now, if you know me you’ll probably realise that singing is not my strong point (although I’ll have a good bash at Aha’s Take On Me when out with my girlfriends), but my creative outlet is obviously baking and decorating. So let’s take a look at how this could be something which could aid positive mental health….
Baking is mindful
Baking is a very focused activity. Think about the tasks it involves: measuring ingredients exactly; taking cakes out of the oven at the right time; colouring sugarpaste to the correct shade of blue; and piping a message with a very steady hand. You have to be concentrating on the task in hand and have your mind focused on the job. If you become involved with something else such as checking your emails, part of the process could go wrong. And let’s face it, if your hands are covered in sticky dough, you’ll be less likely to grab the phone or start scrolling through social media.
Baking can’t really be rushed. It requires you to slow down and give it your full attention. Working through step by step, you are in control, and for someone who may be suffering with low mood or depression this is very important. John Whaite, winner of the Great British Bake Off in 2012, was diagnosed with manic depression in 2005. He speaks about the baking process in an incredibly positive way. “When I’m in the kitchen, measuring the amount of sugar, flour or butter I need for a recipe or cracking the exact amount of eggs- I am in control. That’s really important as a key element of the condition is a feeling of no control.”
photo taken from www.johnwhaite.com
Laura’s story echoes John’s feelings of the importance of this, and how baking can help. “It’s all about control…when it comes to baking, I am always in charge…I can lose myself in it, and keep negativity and numbness at bay. Making something beautiful that I’m proud of also helps me get back some of the sense of self-worth that depression eats away.” You can read more about Laura’s story on www.mind.org.
Baking is more energetic than you think
Ok, I’m not going to pretend it’s the same as an hour’s work out at the gym (although I may try and convince myself that at times), but baking and decorating involves physical activity. Just ask someone who has tried to colour 3 kilos of sugarpaste by hand for a wedding cake how exhausting that can be! Knocking back bread dough, bashing pastry, making breadcrumbs from butter and flour, piping perfect swirls on cupcakes can all use muscles you might not have used for a while. It’s no new revelation that exercising releases endorpohins, the feel good hormone.
“When suffering from low self-esteem or depression, getting into the kitchen and using your muscles can really help,” Irish Examiner on National Baking Week October 16th 2018.
Baking is good for the brain
Dr Jamie Wilson discussed the importance of keeping the brain active and improving brain health in terms of boosting cognitive ability and strengthening our mind (health.spectator.co.uk) “Our busy lives mean that we’re constantly switching focus from one task to the next, which can be harmful for our brain health. It is hugely beneficial to stop and focus on one specific task which tests our brain in a new way.” Crafting calls on parts of the brain that are being used less and less often in our world of modern conveniences.
Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond, highlights that this thinking is not actually new. As long ago as the 19th Century, doctors would prescribe knitting to women who were overwrought with anxiety because they sensed that a focused activity where they were using their hands calmed them down. (CBSnews.com, March 18th 2018)
photo from www.myvmc.com
Baking encourages creativity
“When we’re being creative, our brains release dopamine, a natural anti-depressant. Creativity that takes concentration is a non-medicinal way of getting a feel-good high” (Robin Shreeves, March 13th 2018, MNN Mother Nature Network.)
Jamie Elmer (Healthline.com, December 22nd 2017) advocates choosing a recipe which is suitable for you. Start with one which you feel you can achieve rather than jumping in at the deep end. Having a feeling of success is important. A complex recipe may seem very overwhelming, but also, for some people who like structure, they may find complex recipes appealing. Baking is a safe activity for challenging yourself. Pushing your skills, providing an activity to completely absorb yourself in, and in which to forget about any worries you may have. It’s a regular occurrence in my classes when someone will say, “Where did those two hours go?” or comment on how engrossed they had become in the tasks. Most cake decorators I know can tell you of a time where they completely missed their lunch as they were so involved in the cake they were working on they lost track of time!
“There is a growing recognition in psychology research that creativity is associated with emotional functioning,” Tamlin Conner (November 17th 2016, Journal of Positive Psychology). Researchers followed 658 people for about 2 weeks. Doing small creative tasks everyday (like cooking or baking) made the group feel more enthusiastic and more likely to continue the pursuit the next day. They suggested that people who frequently take part in small creative projects report feeling more relaxed and happier in their everyday lives. A little creativity every day can go a long way to creating a feeling of happiness and satisfaction in the bustle of daily life.
Baking can be social
For some people, baking can be a solitary activity and that’s exactly what they like about it, enjoying the peace and quiet. But it can also be a fun social activity, and it’s one that children absolutely love. Getting messy, feeling they have control over what they are doing, and having a tasty treat to enjoy at the end of it, what’s not to love?! And the same can be said about adults working together, being part of a team, creating memories, enjoying each others company, having fun together. Some of my happiest memories since starting my business have been working on projects for Sugar Show Productions, putting together displays for Cake International with close friends I generally only get to chat to online. Roping in a friend or family member to try a new recipe means you are working together learning something new. You can experience a sense of pride and happiness with the feeling of success you created something fabulous together! Feeding and pleasing those you love with a delicious treat, especially if it’s for a special occasion can add to that glow too. Giving to others can make you feel really good!
Enjoy the wonderful aromas
Lindy Smith highlighted in her blog (Lindyscakes.co.uk, November 8th 2016) that baking brings with it delicious smells. Who doesn’t love the smell of a freshly baked cake or tray of cookies? The benefits of aromatherapy are widely known, powerful aromas in baking can be just as effective in making you feel happy. Baking smells are associated with nurturing, goodness, a cosy home. Martha Roberts discusses a study in psychologies.co.uk (August 1st, 2015) where the smell of baking bread made people kinder to strangers!
And all these positive elements are not just for adults! How many of us want to get our children off computers, ipads, gaming devices and spend a bit more time with us? Baking can be really beneficial for children. It can help with fine motor skills and using their hands in a co-ordinated way. It can improve hand-eye co-ordination, and provide activities which can enhance hand strengthening, which are essential as they are developing their handwriting. It can improve their spatial awareness, and their planning. Following a recipe can help their reading, listening and sequencing skills, as well as helping develop maths skills, looking at weighing, ratios, time…. In a study discussed by Jamie Elmer (December 22nd2017, healthline.com) researchers found that adolescents with the most cooking skills reported a greater sense of mental well-being, as well as less symptoms of depression. So with all these benefits what are we waiting for? Let’s get our kids in the kitchen!
Here are my kids proving the point!
Before I bring this blog post to a close, I have to mention The Depressed Cake Shop. I’m going to use their own description to introduce them to you.
“A global community that promotes self care through the power of creativity and uses it to raise awareness and donations for mental health initiatives around the world.”
They encourage bakers around the globe to join forces and set up pop up bake sales, where grey features heavily as the colour on the bakes, but always with a pop of colour to symbolise hope. It not only encourages the raising of money for mental health charities but also encourages people to meet and discuss any difficulties they may have and seek help. Well worth a further look, so go and find out more over on their website.
So it seems those psychologists may have been right! The act of baking and decorating is mindful. It makes you focus on the task in hand and forget about whatever else might have been troubling you. It can be quite a physical activity encouraging the release of those feel good hormones, as well as exercising the brain and getting those creative juices flowing. It can be a wonderfully social activity- even if you like baking on your own, you can sit down with a friend afterwards and enjoy a slice of cake and a natter together. Preparing tasty baked goods for loved ones can give you the feel good factor. You are surrounded by the most delicious smells which have a positive effect on the brain. And it’s a great activity to share with your kids! With numerous benefits for both them and you….what are you waiting for? Get your apron on and give it a go!