by Grace Smithwick

s The Great British Bake Off and other baking competition shows trend upward on Netflix and Hulu, more and more people are putting themselves to the test in the kitchen. Photos of hilarious baking fails and blogs about the best baking successes can be easily found, but there is one hidden benefit of baking that deserves more discussion. The competitive nature of such shows might not highlight the mental health benefits of baking very well, but the fact remains that the precision and creativity required to craft cakes, pies and cookies can be the perfect outlet for an overwhelmed mind.

The article “Effective Stress Relievers for Your Life” on Very Well Mind encourages things like exercise and altering your diet to cut out caffeine and refined sugars, but many of these articles talk about finding a distraction in times of overpowering panic, or starting a new hobby to help pull yourself out of a harmful mindset. When you’re baking, confronted with a list of required ingredients and the promise of something delicious on the other side of it, your focus is narrowed down to carefully measuring out flour and sugar, weighing bowls of chocolate chips and figuring out how a stand mixer works. The precise nature of baking leaves no room in your mind for anything except making sure you add the right ingredients in the correct order and not getting any bits of eggshell in your mixing bowl. You can even turn making a pie crust into a meditative moment, counting and measuring your breaths as you knead, shape and roll out the dough. Precision and repetitive physical action combined with a sense of productivity can ease anxious thoughts and keep you from dwelling on the stresses of your day to day life.

And baking is good for more than just a hands-on distraction. The artistic expression of baking is another facet of mental health and self-care that can be just as important as exercise and deep breathing techniques. According to the HuffPost article “Psychologists Explain the Benefits of Baking for Other People,” Donna Pincus, a professor of psychology at Boston University, had this to say on the subject of artistic expression as therapy: “There’s a lot of literature for connection between creative expression and overall wellbeing. Whether it’s painting or it’s making music [or baking], there is a stress relief that people get from having some kind of an outlet and a way to express themselves.”

A creative outlet is vital to mental wellbeing. We all need a place to express ourselves, and the design of a cake or the color of a frosting is both a fun and delicious form of self-expression. No matter if your cakes come out looking bakery display-ready or they’re tilting like a modern art sculpture, at the end of the day, you have created something. You have put your time, energy and love into making something that you can share with others.

Now, it’s easy to get intimidated away from the kitchen when you see the brilliant bakes pulled out of ovens on the competition shows. Getting started is always the hardest part, but every baker must begin somewhere. Dozens upon hundreds of tasty-looking recipes can be found on Pinterest, and it is easy to find yourself buried under articles about naked cakes or paleo energy bars, but the best thing you can do is try cookies first. They are a staple, a classic and one of the easiest things to make. Plus, it is almost a guarantee that you have the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies in your pantry already. Flour, sugar, butter, salt, baking powder. These are the basic building blocks of most baked goods. If you can conquer cookies, there is no bake that is off-limits or out of your league.

Of course, the act of sharing your homemade baked goods with friends and family can also bring a much-needed sense of accomplishment and can be an effective way to communicate with the people around you. Knowing you have put something good into the world—even in a form as simple as a plate of chocolate chip cookies—can go a long way to easing anxious thoughts.

So, when you are searching for a distraction to pull you away from your stressful, anxiety-inducing thoughts, why not pre-heat your oven and break out the flour and the chocolate chips and whip up something delicious you can share with others? The sense of achievement will make the cookies taste even better.