By Annie Lyons
Banana bread with chocolate chunks. Freshly baked bread. Chocolate chip scones. These might all sound like items you would find in a bustling bakery on a weekend morning, but they also describe the homemade creations from 19-year-old Aisha Mahama’s kitchen over the past couple weeks.
Mahama, an English and government sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, recently moved back home to Dallas because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. She says that baking has provided a necessary distraction from stress.
“If you’re following a recipe, everything’s really clear-cut for you, and the end result is really nice,” she said. “You take yourself away from whatever you’re studying or reading about.”
Since the enactment of social distancing policies, intentional acts of self-care feel more vital than ever. For some like Mahama, baking is the answer, providing a creative outlet and a sense of routine. Making something with your hands that requires careful attention can be a calming activity, and it brings tangible results that you can taste.
Tasnim Islam, a women’s and gender studies and Plan II Honors sophomore at UT, started baking breakfast treats on a procrastinating whim a few weeks ago, and now she can’t stop. While she’s always loved cooking, her busy schedule at school usually meant she didn’t have time to make food that wasn’t purely for sustenance.
“Ever since quarantine started, I realized I had more time to make things that I actually enjoy eating instead of just things that will sustain myself throughout the day,” she said. “(Baking) is the only thing right now that’s actually bringing me serotonin.”
She says part of the appeal is the satisfaction she feels every time she takes something out of the oven.
“It’s the feeling at the end when you see the final product … like I did that. You can smell it, you can taste it, you can look at it, post it. Everything about it feels really good.”
Islam also enjoys sharing her favorite creations to social media, like a TikTok video of a heart-shaped apple pie with a lattice crust. She’s not alone. Take a scroll down any social media feed, and it seems like the whole world has retreated from the outside to the comforts of a cookbook. There’s a picture of a focaccia loaf here, a plate of cookies there. According to Google Trends, “sourdough” has been a more popular search term this April than it has for the past 16 years.
The benefits of baking go beyond trendiness. Amateur baking is a form of self-care meant to improve mental and physical health, and there’s scientific backing for its positive effects.
In a 2016 peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers suggested that small creative projects, like baking, can improve well-being in young adults. The study followed 658 college students for two weeks as they answered daily questionnaires about their emotional states and how much time they had spent on creative activities. When participants did a little creative activity, they reported feeling significantly more enthusiastic and purposeful the next day.
Culinary arts therapy has grown in popularity in the past decade for similar reasons. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine found that for people grieving the recent loss of a loved one, cooking classes paired with cognitive behavioral therapy benefited the healing process.
Cassandra Moreno, a licensed professional counselor at the Counseling and Mental Health Center at UT, says that self-care is key for reducing stress, preventing burnout and improving moods.
“Through self-care, we can get the energy and nourishment that we need to accomplish our goals,” Moreno said via email. “If we can meet our own needs, then we will have the energy to give to others.”
Public crises like the coronavirus pandemic can cause strong emotional and physical reactions that disrupt self-care routines. Moreno recommends prioritizing self-care by creating an individualized plan that is deliberate and attainable.
“In general, making time for your passions and hobbies can reduce stress and bring you joy and happiness,” she said. “Self-care can also be found in the small moments of life, like taking a deep breath or taking a break to reflect on your day.”
Islam says that baking has given her a sense of control amidst a time of change and uncertainty. She moved back home to Frisco to stay with her parents, and UT’s transition to online classes for the remainder of the semester hasn’t been easy.
“(Baking) is something that I choose to do. With schoolwork and internships, it’s stuff that I feel like I have to do,” she said. “With this, it’s just my own thing. It’s not like laundry or an assignment. It feels nice that I’m just doing it for myself.”