The science behind stress baking.

With AP or IB tests, college decisions and final projects around the corner, my house has turned into one giant cavity: layer cakes, ideas for lunchbox cakes, cupcakes, Oreo cookie balls, frosting recipes, croissants, cookie dough. Recently, I even ventured into homemade pesto. As Olaf wisely states in Frozen 2, “We’re calling this controlling what you can when things seem out of control.”

Stress baking is not a new phenomenon and has become particularly prominent after the intensity of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull, some Americans “seem to have turned to weekend baking as a salve for the ambient anxiety of being alive.”

The “salve” is so effective because baking itself is a series of repetitive movements that require complete focus and calm the mind. Measuring water, folding flour, leveling a cake. It
is difficult to panic over math equations and correctly temper chocolate at the same time. For an hour or so, the stress of the day is out of sight and out of mind.

The science behind the “escapism” of baking is complicated, but it essentially comes down to the prefrontal cortex. When a person is stressed, their amygdala—the part of the brain that controls anxiety, blood pressure and breathing—kicks into high gear. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex—which regulates emotions—deactivates. Their brain becomes unable to regulate its emotions as effectively, leading to hyper-fixation on certain stressors.

Actions such as meditation and deep breathing reactivate the prefrontal cortex, putting rampant emotions back in check. In many ways, baking is a form of meditation: the repetitive actions require focus and mindfulness. In moderation, baking can be an effective stress reliever.

For anxious busybodies such as myself, the brief reprieve from daily life is a form of self regulation and health. Oftentimes, the popular stress-relieving methods of listening to music, taking a nap or deep breathing are not appealing because they require slowing down instead of utilizing that nervous energy. Baking keeps the hands busy and creates a tangible result, one that can be shared with others.

If you’re struggling with anxiety or stress, I recommend finding a unique balance of activities that combine relaxation with energy utilization. If you’ve been studying for hours and need a break, take a walk around the block and just breathe. If you’re full of nervous energy, lace up your running shoes or knead a ball of dough. Whichever method you choose, remember that life is sweeter and bigger than your current situation.