Cooking for Anxiety and Depression in the New Year

While we are all dealing with social distancing resulting from COVID-19, I am realizing that the desperation and angst I felt during my bout of postpartum depression nine years ago feels extraordinarily tangible once again.

Depression is full of fear, isolation, relentless anxiousness and insecurity. Another quality of my depression was the idea that I was in a body I suspected might be unreliable and vulnerable. I am feeling versions of all those things now.

Postpartum depression brought me to my knees in 2011 when my younger daughter was a newborn. I had two little ones, and I was constantly worried and exhausted.

I recently decided that 2020 would be the year I finally started talking and writing openly about that experience and how one low point became the beginning of an unexpected journey — a transformation from being a depleted new mom to using cooking as a part of my therapy.

In the process of writing my story, I connected with Jacqueline K. Gollan, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. She explained that how I used cooking as way back to emotional health was a real-life example of what psychologists refer to as Behavioral Activation.

It turns out, cooking is an activity that can positively affect our brains.

“The reward part of the brain, called the striatum, is active when we predict and experience reward and relief,” says Dr. Gollan. “Reward experience and learning can be broken down into two concepts: mastery (how well you do something) and pleasure (how good it feels). Cooking and eating can be a space and activity that promotes both dimensions of reward.”

I sent that story off to a few key people in my inner circle hoping it would get published and ultimately help women who were suffering and stuck like I was, but in the week that followed its first foray into the world, COVID-19 became all anyone thought about, wrote about and talked about. My article was effectively shelved.

But here’s another story:

Although I am still prone to anxiety and depression, I will weather this moment with an ease that wasn’t available to me nearly a decade ago.

I now have more tools to help me cope, and cooking simple food is part of that toolkit. I want to give new and seasoned moms — and anyone really — some practical ways to use it as a therapeutic tool for themselves.

The tips below may or may not work for everyone or anyone. They might spark curiosity and mobilize some readers during this crisis to reconnect with cooking or start from scratch. And some of us might decide instead to call for take-out and support our local restaurants.

All of these options are what this moment calls for.

However, if you do find yourself walking into your kitchen looking for nourishment and solace, here are some of the most valuable things I have learned:

Tip #1: Cook alone.

Instagram photos of gorgeous mamas and kids cooking are not what my cooking therapy looks like. When I go into my kitchen needing self-care, I might be in my pajamas and wearing slippers. I often ask my daughters, husband and dog to kindly leave the area to give me some quiet time.

I turn on music that fits my mood, and I focus on the textures, aromas and colors of the ingredients in front of me. I hone in on the transformation that occurs when I follow (or feel the courage to improvise) a recipe, combining foods, herbs and spices. And I take my time.

Tip #2: Do not rush.

Running from the metaphorical time tiger defeats the point of this process. We are now in a time when no one needs to get to soccer practice, talent show rehearsal or a birthday party. In fact most of us don’t need to be anywhere at any certain time at all.

This is at once difficult and a gift. I have laid down ground rules in my house, including the expectation that everyone respects the time and space it takes to prepare a family meal.

Tip #3: Keep the process very simple.

Mincing garlic and sautéing greens, making a salad, arranging a plate of snacks or preparing a simple soup take up less mental bandwidth than complex recipes, yet a simple process is just as soothing as making something more complicated. Some of my favorite recipes don’t even require heat.

In the end, I don’t spend too much energy, if any energy at all, nitpicking my choices on what to make. I make what I like. The reality is it matters much less what you cook and much more that you simply do it.


Nicole Bianchi, N.C. Nicole Bianchi, N.C. is a certified nutritionist who helps clients strategically develop food plans for themselves and their families according to their individual needs, situations, health challenges and preferences.

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