Let’s talk about stress baking.

Let’s talk about stress baking.

I was surprised to learn from the comments of the recent post about my go-to cookbooks that not everyone is acquainted with the term “stress baking,” nor the virtues thereof. I’ve employed stress baking as a coping mechanism for so long that I took it for granted knowledge of the art was universal, if not universally applied.

Many people bake out of necessity, or for the joy of discovery, or as a means of artistic expression. I do none of these. When I bake (unless my kids have roped me into one of their “kitchen projects”—a euphemism if ever there was one) I do so as a means of stress relief.

It’s entirely possible that not everyone has the need for an outlet like stress baking, but for those of us to tend to live in our heads (ahem), it’s an excellent way to deal with stress, whether the variety is family drama, workplace issues, or General Overwhelm.

Baking isn’t easy, but that’s the point: it’s a precise, physical discipline that requires concentration on the task at hand, which has the added benefit of crowding out the swirling storm of thoughts in your head. It requires you to slow down and be deliberate with your actions, which yield a predictable and satisfying end.

Yet for the over-thinkers among us, baking is a different kind of hard: it requires very little decision making: a plus for anyone prone to decision fatigue. We’re talking about stress baking, not stress cooking, after all—and for good reason: cooking is improvisational, tolerant, and accommodating. Baking is exacting, formulaic, and unforgiving. Cooking readily accepts the cook’s whims; baking requires formulaic precision.

When it comes to stress relief, I have no doubt which is better suited for my own needs. Cooking may be satisfying at the end of a hard day; baking is satisfying in the midst of a hard month.

I don’t bake as much as I used to (silly gluten) but last night we had a special dinner at home, and Silas (age 4) and I made apple crisp. (We use the crisp recipe from Bread and Wine, even though we rarely make it with blueberries as prescribed) I’d planned on baking it alone while listening to Outlander book 5 (I’ve gotta chip away at those 55 hours whenever I can!), but Silas wanted to help. I don’t put headphones in when my kids are in the room, but Silas wasn’t feeling chatty, so we just stood at the kitchen counter together, largely in silence, while we studiously peeled our dozen apples (because I believe in leftovers) and mixed up our topping.

Making apple crisp is not at quite the same level as baking bread, meditation-wise. But his late-afternoon crankiness soon subsided to calm, and my fear of peeling off my own skin kept my attention on the apples, not on my to-do list. We both needed the break.

(Also worth noting: our house smelled fabulous. And Silas was heartbreakingly proud of his contribution to the family dinner.)

Of course, there are other ways to work off stress that have nothing to do with baking, although they share many of the same characteristics. Last week when I was feeling a little bit exhausted, I decided to paint the kitchen instead of tackling my to-do list. It was a physical task that required my concentration but no decisions. It required me to follow certain steps in a certain order, and yielded a predictable end result.

I felt extremely productive, and after a few hours’ work, I could say, “Look—I did that.”

I suspect stress baking isn’t far removed from angry cleaning, either. It’s missing a few key attributes (no formulas are required for organizational binges) but its shared drive to create external order out of inner (and outer) chaos makes the two cousins, at least.

Talk to use about your experience with stress baking. 

50 comments | Comment

50 comments

  1. I do bake, but I don’t think I stress bake. I bake more as a means to an end. I want a bunch of rolls, so I bake them. I feel like eating cinnamon bread, so I bake it.

    I’m not entirely sure what I do with myself when I’m stressed, although I am aware that I usually want to talk to NO ONE when I’m stressed. I just want to be quiet and I don’t want anyone to ask me questions.

    (This may or may not be difficult to accomplish when one is a homeschooling mom of four.)

  2. Jamie says:

    I have always intentionally avoided stress baking out of concerns about its ties to (and possible promotion of) stress eating. When I am stressed, it is extra important for me to eat well, so baking can be counter productive. (Though I completely recognize its value and practicality for people who have kids around to help consume the goodies!)

    I fall squarely into the stress cleaning coping category. Nothing makes the world feel a little more under control than freshly de-cluttered and scrubbed surfaces! I also employ “frisbee time”… 15 minutes of frisbee with my border collies, in any weather, goes a very long way towards reorienting my perspective on life and whatever stressors are at hand. 🙂

  3. Amy says:

    I love the Bread & Wine crisp! We’ve made it with all kinds of different fruit, but our favorite is half blueberries, half peaches.

  4. Oh yes. Let’s talk about the fact that during my first year of teaching on the south side of Chicago, I made brownies (from scratch) multiple times a week. Not that my husband was complaining.

    And we made apple-blueberry crisp the other day. My little guy (2.5) is “helping” more lately, which is pretty precious. And attention-requiring :).

  5. Amy S says:

    Oh my, yes. I stress bake and clean! When we first moved to a new state, away from all our family and friends, I made so many batches of chocolate chip cookies it was ridiculous! The hardest part about it was moving from a sea level state to a mile high state, and NONE of my baking recipes turning out right! Thankfully, I was able to iron the chocolate chip cookies out after many attempts. 🙂

  6. My DH stress-bakes. Mostly bread, which seems to give the appropriate amount of physical labor, and chocolate chip cookies, because that’s what he craves when stressed. We gained a lot of weight that last year of grad school.

  7. Jennifer says:

    I have always been a stress baker for just the reasons you mention. When I saw you use the term, it made me smile because it is nice to know that it’s not just me who is working through my feelings with a pound of butter and a couple cups of sugar. The up/down side of stress baking, as many here have pointed out, is that it will usually lead to stress eating so I’ve had to scale back the baking and try to find other outlets. I’ve been including regular exercise and meditation to my routine to head off the need for stress baking. And if that doesn’t help, I knit. It offers the same stress-management benefits as you mentioned for baking, “it’s a precise, physical discipline that requires concentration on the task at hand.” Added bonus, the end result is calorie-free and will keep someone warm.

  8. Catherine says:

    My youngest has a learning disability so homework time after school has been fraught with difficulty (tears, temper tantrums, frustration, on both of our parts) since kindergarten. Encouraged by the ease with which my beautiful, French NATO neighbor produced daily loves of bread, I decided to bake bread while my daughter did homework. It allowed me to be in the kitchen where she was battling the homework demons and kept me from fretting and hovering. To top it all, my family loved the daily loaf of bread. I would call this stress baking, would you?

  9. Maureen says:

    I also stress bake. I find it very soothing. Sometimes it is bread or something I need, but other times I need to bake to unwind and then, since I live alone, I have to find someone to pawn it off on. Rarely do I need to actually eat the baked goods at that moment- rather the process of baking is soothing and enjoyable when the rest of life feels like too much.

  10. We may have found an interesting split here in the world, between people who stress-bake, and people who find baking stressful.

    I stress run. The upside is the exercise and getting outside — both things that boost mood, usually. The downside is if you can’t run for some reason, and that reason is also stress-inducing in its own right, it’s quite a combo.

  11. Emily says:

    This very much resonates with me. As someone who spends a good bit of time in her head–and whose job demands lots of writing and reflecting and talking–I love the physicality of stirring and sifting and beating. Cooking is an outlet, too, but I agree that there is something special about baking–and not just because the precise measurements take mental energy out of the equation. Maybe because it is less frequent? It’s more of a respite, a break in my daily routine.

  12. Betsy says:

    Thanks so much for making me smile today, Ann. Hmmn, I’ve always found cooking and baking therapeutic, but I never realized they reduce stress for me. (But they must or why else would they seem therapeutic.) Cooking and baking are equal outlets for me, although baking is more frivolous, more treat-like. (Oh and then I get stress relief which my daughter bakes and I merely EAT! 🙂 )

    Stress cleaning? I should really try that out and see if cleaning relieves my stress. It would make a world of difference around my house, I’m sure!

  13. Mindy T. says:

    I started an online course recently and in the “introduce yourself” discussion topic I shared with the class that I’m a stress baker. However, until you outlined the reasons here, I never really knew why baking was helpful for me. It’s funny how low I rate on intrapersonal intelligence – I can have a personal pattern for years and never completely understand it. Thanks Anne for willingly sharing!

  14. Ann says:

    I definitely stress bake-especially when things are financially tight around here. For some reason, I find if I can make a dessert, then I prove to myself things are not so bad and we’re going to make it (this month).

  15. Leah says:

    I totally stress bake (& angry clean!). Right after my first long-term, serious relationship ended, I did nothing but bake. I found it did wonders for my mental health – baking gave me something to focus on instead of crying over my ex and I experimented a LOT with recipes I never would have considered before. A definite win for me!

    Personally I find baking and cooking calming. I don’t know if it’s the smells or the exact measurements that require focus, but I always head to the kitchen whenever I’m feeling frazzled.

  16. Anna says:

    I don’t stress bake – I get so frustrated when things don’t turn out well which is often. Being gluten free makes it harder. But I do stress knit, and before that I stress played the piano. Both fit your stress baking reasons. They are complex and require focus, thus calming the internal thought storm. I think there is universal value in finding something to do with your hands to calm your mind.

  17. Mary says:

    Baking for me is something so pleasurable that I don’t think I ever do it when I am stressed. I like to get creative with whatever recipe I am using, and I just cannot be creative when Inam stressed! But the idea of “stress cleaning” really resonates with me! Years ago, we had linoleum tile floors in our kitchen and breakfast area. When I was really mad about something, I would strip the wax and relax those floors, then buff them to a shine you wouldn’t believe! Now that I am older, I find that fewer and fewer things make me that mad, LOL!! (Plus we have stone tile floors in the kitchen and breakfast area now–so no waxing needed.)

  18. I am definitely a stress baker but I also stress cook because I find all the chopping and stirring to be equally therapeutic. It helps me get out of my head but also gives me room to process. I also love painting, so I got a kick out of you mentioning it too. I’ve realized in the past year I need to better inhabit my body and using my hands is one way of doing so. Living Room Dance Parties are another way. Now I just make sure I’m doing all of these things on a more regular basis, instead of when the stress level is particularly high.

  19. emily says:

    I was a stress baker until several years ago. I was oven-less for a couple of weeks and therefore couldn’t bake. I lost 10 lbs. and realized that I had a problem!

    I took up yoga to handle my stress, and began “love baking.” Someone has a baby? A death in the family? Maybe a rough day at school? I’m all over it. I found that although words often fail me, a fresh from the oven treat expresses my feelings perfectly. I don’t bake as often as I used to, but my it has new meaning and my pants still fit!

    • Deborah says:

      I love to bake too! Our house rule is that I’m not going to bake unless I’m giving some away. It helps our waistlines. And, now that I have a little boy who loves to participate in the baking and the giving, baking is better than ever.

  20. I don’t stress bake. I bored bake. As in, if I’m bored and want something to, I’ll bake. Not anything too complicated, just cookies or brownies or something else sweet, but when I can’t sit still and everything else seems unappealing, I’ll take to the kitchen.

    I do stress clean. If I’m particularly stressed or angry, I start to clean. At least it’s productive!

  21. Taryn B says:

    My therapist talks about the “emotional side” of your brain and the “business side” of your brain (similar to right side vs. left side). And when we’re operating more out of the emotional side (I.e., feeling ruled by our feelings), it can be helpful to engage the business side by doing activities that require steps, like following recipes, knitting, stitching cross stitch, putting puzzles together, etc. I think that’s why baking can be stress-relieving.

    • Ana says:

      Ooh yes, I commented before I read the comments (sorry) but this makes a lot of sense. I like crossword puzzles for this, too.

  22. Shawna says:

    I don’t stress cook or bake because usually knives are involved, and I don’t want to risk cutting myself and making my stress level even higher. I do stress clean, though

  23. Breanne says:

    My family has been getting a lot more do-ahead breakfasts lately and it’s all about the stress-kitchen time.
    We’re getting ready for a Whole30 here and while I really want to stress bake, it’s not the best prep and I need to restock my flours.

    Washing dishes in the evening also has the same effect- something about doing a mindless activity that requires some focus and no decision.

  24. Kate says:

    I used to stress bake a lot in high school and then again as an adult when I moved back in with my parents. My mom had all the right equipment, counter space and a good oven, and there were people around to eat what I made. Now that I’m on my own and in a tiny kitchen with an iffy oven, I rarely bake and kind of miss it.

  25. Tim says:

    When I was a kid and complained to my Mom on occasion that I was bored, she’d tell me to go bake something. I as making scratch cookies on my own by the age of 9, and progressed to cooking more as the years went on.

    I think the stress part was her telling me to beat it (in the kitchen) and not stress her out.

  26. Ana says:

    Yes, I am of the same “always in my head” thinking thinking THINKING type, and any kind of physical task that requires concentration is a good break. Baking, sewing, painting…those all work really well. Cleaning is somewhat different because I can still think and stew and perseverate while I’m doing it…but if I need to be counting teaspoons or trying not to get paint on the ceiling, I can’t ruminate.

  27. Virginia says:

    Yes! I totally stress bake! I also bored bake and excited bake, too. I find the kitchen is my absolute favorite place to feel all the emotions, but baking itself is very calming and healing. Plus, it leads to a finished product that I can share with others–my family, neighbors, friends–and sharing and feeding others is definitely my love language.

  28. Jennifer Reiser says:

    Wonderful post! I can definitely relate. I stress bake so much during certain deadline-oriented times of the year that I have renamed one of my favorite Derby Pie recipes “Stress Pie”. In fact, even my kids request it as such now! It’s nice to know that there are many kindred spirits here.

  29. Bonnie-Jean says:

    Fascinating & enlightening as usual Anne. I love to bake but it must be solo (kid free) as I use it as a form of ‘me’ time. I think that because baking is something that can’t generally be interrupted I don’t feel guilty for saying ‘no’ to the kids requests to play a game or read just one more story. However, my husband has now banned me from any more baking until Christmas as we’ve both put on some extra pounds over the winter here in Australia. I do stress clean at times but cleaning as ‘me’ time just isn’t quite the same!

  30. Angela says:

    I can’t stress bake because then I’ll have to clean up after myself and cleaning gives me stress. It’s a cycle I don’t want to start. Instead, I stress Sudoku. That’s as close I come to “precise, physical discipline that requires concentration.” And by physical I mean moving my fingers across the computer screen and pressing down on the left mouse button to select the correct number. That counts, right?

  31. Evie says:

    I love to bake and maybe this fits because I start to feel stressed if I’m not able to bake for awhile. Generally some focused time in my kitchen ( preferably alone but not always realistic) is helpful for me to process life. I wish that stress cleaning was my thing… Would be much healthier and efficient!!

  32. Hannah says:

    I too stress bake and clean – as an added function, it acts as a red flag to others that I need some TLC. My house mates through uni always used to say they knew when I was stressed, because the house was spotless and there’d be a housemate afternoon tea prepared for us all to chat over. I also stress craft and declutter too…on reflection I must be a very stressed person!

  33. Anne says:

    I got angry cleaning, but when I started reading this post, I kept waiting for you to say stress baking is for stress eating, ha! But I can see how it is appealing in its (near) mindlessness, like painting. No extra decisions!! 🙂

  34. Mystie says:

    I used to do that more. I think my family would be happy if I chose baking as stress relief more often. 🙂 And baking then gives the “opportunity” for that anger cleaning to follow up with.

    I do like a good productive method of venting.

  35. I am TOTALLY a stress baker AND angry cleaner. Also willing to ignore larger, less-precise tasks in favor of doing one small thing in order to feel success somewhere. I wonder if it is some aspect of the Meyers-Briggs or just the brain connecting all these things! (I am an INFJ/P on a good day.)

  36. I stress organise. When I’m stressed or very cross, my house is immaculate and every last thing is in its place.

    Baking I do so I can eat it 🙂 Means to an end for me…

  37. Beth says:

    Stress baking is mindfulness, which is THE thing right now in evidenced based depression treatment. Perfect.

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