Why Stress Baking Is Everyone’s Favorite Way to Cope

An ode to the one coping strategy I use when all others seem to fall short. Also, can you help a sister find some yeast in Boston, please?

My homemade lemon blueberry birthday/Photo credit Tera Quigley

Typically, I do one of two things when I’m stressed: I run from my feelings or I eat them. A month ago, when the coronavirus pandemic halted our lives, I did both. I teeter on extremism, though, and I ended up running until my legs were numb and then comforted myself with ice cream sundaes and pizza. I quickly realized neither of those options were sustainable coping mechanisms, especially as my body became sore and tired and I became so ridden with anxiety that food no longer sounded good. It wasn’t until later that I learned that making things with my hands—in this case cookies, cakes, and pies—was the one moment where every worry, insecurity, and ounce of fear I had melted away. Kinda like the two sticks of butter I routinely find myself putting in the microwave.

It seems other people have found the same solace in their own pantries, because by the looks of the baking aisles in the grocery stores, there’s not a single cup of flour or packet of yeast left in the whole state of Massachusetts. And my Instagram feed seems filled with pictures of #TheCookies, banana bread, and plenty of beautifully crafted sourdough loaves. What is it about times of distress that makes us all turn to baking?

For many, it’s proven a valuable and manageable skill they can master from the comfort of home. Mike Pannozzi, a Rev’d Cycling instructor in Boston and a former dabbler in baking, has now experimented with making healthier alternatives to things like muffins, bagels, and pizza dough. He says this time has really allowed him to stray from recipes and test out his own creations. “The real fun and rewarding moments are when I can create something on my own that is both healthy and delicious,” he says. Others are embracing the fact that quarantine gives them an excuse to take their baking efforts to the next level. Joseph Goodliffe, a Boston-based scientist, is documenting all of his recipes in a quarantine cookbook. And Mollie Drury, who has her own baking blog, has taken to baking something new every Friday. “It helps keep structure to the week and is a nice way to begin each weekend,” she says. “Plus, then we have fresh dessert. Win!”

My own roommates have gotten pretty used to the influx of freshly baked cookies that inhabit our designated “eat-this” space on the countertop. I’ve even used this time to try pie dough for the first time, as well as custard. Inflating my already-too-big-for-my-skills ego, I even purchased a 137-piece cake decorating kit that I’m sure will keep me busy for hours. Not only is the actual act of baking soothing to my soul, it feels good to be able to present something beautiful at the end of all my hard work. If not for any other reason than to dive into it with a knife or a spoon two seconds later.

We all know that humans turn to food for connection. It’s how we express love, it’s how we nourish our communities and celebrate different cultures, and it’s the centerpiece of our holiday gatherings. What would Christmas be without a Yule log cake, or Rosh Hashanah without a brisket? The urge to bake during times of struggle feels different, though. Is it the mere act of creating something that is fulfilling, or is it that baking is the perfect activity for quarantine, combining, as it does, a low skill level entry point, clear instructions, the need for intense focus, with a very rewarding payoff?

Karen Schwartz, a social cognitive therapist at Boston Evening Therapy, says the best way to think about self-care is to think about your six senses: touch, smell, movement, taste, hearing, and vision. It’s not hard to see how baking hits on them all, from the aromas generated while baking to all those delicious sugar-based endorphins hitting all at once to the physical satisfaction of crafting something with your hands. For me, I love the feeling of being covered in a mess—whether that mess be dirt in the backyard or flour all over my black yoga pants—and working the mess into something beautiful. I love the smell of freshly baked cookies at 9 p.m., and I love the feeling of bread dough squishing between my fingers as I pull and press the gooey blob into the countertop. It taps into that little thing we call mindfulness, allowing me to sit in the present moment and be here, not in my head.

I also can’t help but think how baking is a labor of love. Typically, it’s a labor of love for someone else. We make cookies for co-workers, we bake cakes for special celebrations, and we gift loaves of Amish friendship bread…well, to our friends. During a time when sharing is rather frowned upon due to social distancing measures, I’ve seen sharing happening in new ways, whether that’s sending family recipes over email or dropping off sourdough starters and bags of flour on porches. But as I stayed up rather late (for my quarantine schedule) the night before my (quarantined) birthday elbow deep in powdered sugar for my own lemon blueberry birthday cake, I couldn’t help but think that this was a labor of love to myself. And just as it’s important for us to maintain connections to those we love while we’re separate, it’s also vital to focus that love inward during tough times. We’re all just trying to find the coping strategies that work. Don’t forget to show up with a little more love and compassion for the one person that you can always rely on to get you through challenges: yourself.