Depression, Mental Health, Self-care

Depressed? You might want to learn how to cook

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What we eat has a direct impact on our brain and our mood. But when I decided to learn how to cook as part of my “self-healing/solving my problems program”, I didn’t know how much preparing the food would impact my mental health.

Learning how to cook put an end, at least temporarily, to the procrastination, guilt, and negative self-talk I was experiencing constantly, and improved my overall well-being.

While doing some research for this article, I learned that cooking is actually part of a type of therapy known as Behavioral activation.

Image from Canva

Behavioral activation is “a structured, brief psychotherapeutic approach that aims to (a) increase engagement in adaptive activities (which often are those associated with the experience of pleasure or mastery), (b) decrease engagement in activities that maintain depression or increase the risk for depression, and (c) solve problems that limit access to reward or that maintain or increase aversive control” (Dimidjian et al., 2011).

I also came across other terms such as occupational therapy, therapeutic cooking, kitchen or culinary therapy, culinary mindfulness, culinary art therapy, etc.

I decided to learn how to cook because I intuitively knew that I needed to take better care of myself, and was aware of the “complicated nature” of my relationship with food. In case you are wondering, I hated cooking, was not interested in learning, and thought I had no skill whatsoever.

It started as a way to get me to take care of myself but in the end, I discovered so much more.

Before we go any further, I want to point out that although studies do suggest that cooking interventions may positively impact psychosocial outcomes, further and more rigorous research is needed in this area to support those claims.

Therefore, in this article, I will be talking about my personal experience and how learning how to cook has benefited my mental health.

So, here are all the ways cooking improved my well-being.

1. Cooking everyday put a stop to my negative thinking

Our brain cannot focus on two things at once.

Right now, you are probably feeding your negative thoughts by focusing on them all day long. It’s a paradox: when you are depressed, all you want is to be left alone and wallow in your misery, and yet, the only way to come out of it is by doing something else.

But when you are cooking, especially if you are learning how to cook and are not at ease in a kitchen, you have no choice but to give your full attention to what you are doing. And just like that, the negative self-talk slowly shuts up!

Related post : How do yo break out of negative thinking?

2. When cooking, you remember to be present, aware

I think people in general do everything in their power to avoid reality, especially in westernized countries where we seem to put so much emphasis on thinking versus simply being. We end up numbing ourselves, trying to escape life in endless video games, TV series, getting high or wasted, etc.

Those who are severely depressed might (consciously or unconsciously) be putting a lot of effort into being detached from what is happening around them. It’s as if there was a wall standing between you and the rest of the world.

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Image from Canva

When you are learning how to cook, you are stimulated by smells, sounds, colors, textures, tastes, but you must also be precise, move around hot stoves and sharp objects.

For a moment, you wake up from your haze and come back to the present.

3. It stopped my self-destructive behavior

I had been neglecting my body and my mind for years, no longer booking doctor’s appointments, feeding myself properly, seeing friends, doing my hair or nails or even dressing properly… no longer caring about any of that. I no longer cared about me.

At that time, I thought it was because I was above all those “superficial” things, but that was a lie. I think unconsciously I was just letting myself die slowly.

But once I decided to learn how to cook and made cooking the only thing I requested of myself every day for like 3 months, it slowly created a barrier of some sort. As if there was a certain low point I was no longer allowing myself to reach.

And slowly, I started building self-respect.

And from there I only went back up.

Related article: 22 habits that helped me overcome depression without medication.

4. My days had more meaning after cooking

A life that doesn’t produce anything is a life that has no meaning. And a life that has no meaning is not worth living”.

Jordan B. Peterson

Before learning how to cook or simply taking basic care of myself, the days were like a juxtaposition of hours that lead to nothing. Or death. I didn’t make anything meaningful of my days, and work was not what I would consider meaningful.

But slowly, as I started making myself breakfast or supper, I didn’t feel so worthless anymore after doing it. I had accomplished something. A very basic thing but important nonetheless: I had gotten my ass off the couch and taken care of a human being.

Suddenly, I could procrastinate all I want for the rest of the day, I didn’t feel so worthless anymore.

cooking for mental and physical health_Health and fitness tips

5. I connected with the ingredients

After observing myself and others for over two decades, I now believe humans have a deep need for connection with “life” (by this I mean not just other humans, but “living” things in general like animals or plants). And cooking, even if you have no one to share it with, does just that: it connects you to life.

This is especially true if you are using whole foods like fruits and vegetables. They are living things that grew on this planet, just like us.

And when you learn how to cook, you get to know each of these living things that will soon be part of you: you touch or smell them, notice their color with or without the skin, how they taste before or after being cooked, etc. You connect.

It’s not the same as staring at a wall or a TV. It’s better! And good for the soul.

6. Cooking is like therapy for your senses

As a depressed person, you are probably limiting your experiences, looking at the same things every day, thinking the same lousy thoughts, keeping yourself in a bleak state that is feeding your depression. You are numb.

However, when you learn how to cook, for an hour or two you come out of your bucket of negativity and feed all your senses with something more positive.

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Photo from Canva
  • Did you know that a fruit or vegetable’s peel has a different smell than the fruit itself? Have you ever smelled carrot or banana peels? It’s divine! I’m not even kidding.
  • When you roast sweet potatoes in the oven, your whole house smells like Christmas.
  • The next time you roast butternut squash, pay attention to the noises it makes. It sounds like a dying beast. Freaky.

7. Learning how to cook taught me gratitude

When I prepare the ingredients or look at all the food I brought back from the grocery store, I consciously look at them, touch them, smell them and it makes me grateful, happy.

Happiness is simple. It’s right in front of us in the present moment.

And when you learn how to cook your own meals, you never take food for granted.

Related article: Think you have nothing to be grateful for? Read this.

8. Learning how to cook improved my self-esteem

There is no sense of pride in ordering take-out.

But boil an egg, add a slice of lettuce and tomato, a thin layer of mayo, sprinkle some sea salt and black pepper … and suddenly you feel like a king. Or Gordon Ramsay.

You did that.

After a few months of learning how to cook, I realized I was able to take care of myself, teach myself things, learn and evolve. I became proud of myself.

Also, if you decide to cook something for yourself and actually do it, it’s an accomplishment. And you can feel like that every day you do it.

It certainly beats the “I’m worthless” inner monologue.  

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9. Happiness is progress

When you don’t make things yourself, you rob yourself of the opportunity to make progress.

I literally made zucchini-pepper-garlic-onion recipes for at least 2-3 months. Two or three very frustrating months. I knew nothing so I had to learn to cook each ingredient one by one.

But then I tried broccoli and asparagus; then I made a quiche. And then I discovered sweet potatoes. Later, I started making chili which is now my go-to dish. I make it almost every week.

And 6 months later I was experimenting, mix and matching ingredients without even thinking about it too much. Me! The worst cook on the planet. I was so impressed and excited! I still am just thinking about it.  

10. Learning how to cook improved my relationship with food

My entire life I’ve had a love-hate relationship with food. I ate MASSIVE amounts of food but was extremely thin and always hungry. I also had constant and very painful stomach aches. Food was both my oxygen and my worst nightmare.

Once I started learning how to cook, I gained so much insight into my body’s and brain’s needs! It later led me to discover that I had an auto-immune disease.

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Photo by Ktryna on Unsplash

It’s also around that time that I switched to the Wahls diet and it has had an undeniable impact on my depression, chronic inflammations, and overall health.

11. Learning how to cook taught me the value of sustained, basic self-care

Before learning how to cook, I was not taking proper care of myself. I didn’t feel like it, but I also did not know how or what was important for me.

Now I know that one of the pillars of my self-care routine involves cooking very specific meals every day.

I thdn progresively learned to pay attention to the other elements of self-care that were necessary for my well-being like making my bed, doing my dishes, and walking outside everyday.

12. Learning how to cook improved my ability to focus

Two years ago, I was overwhelmed in so many ways I could not focus on a single thing for more than 30 seconds. My brain was useless.

Cooking has been extremely helpful in that area. It was one of the only tasks I could focus on for short periods without getting too irritated. Just a few months later, I could cook for 3-4 hours!

13. Learning how to cook expanded my horizons

When you are depressed you become stuck in a narrow vision of the world and of yourself. And you don’t want to come out of it. It’s almost as if you find comfort in the darkness.

At first, I saw learning how to cook as something I had to do, but I later found I was learning so much more than what I had expected. It eventually helped me open up to even more new things.

14. I grew up

After a few months, I realized that I didn’t hate cooking, it’s just that I didn’t know how to do it. But after gaining some experience, I then learned to organize my meals and my groceries and became more intentional in the way I shop.

And the best part is that I ended up saving a lot of money, which definitely contributed to my well-being.

15. I discovered my (previously non-existent) sense of creativity

Once you’ve mastered the basics of cooking, your creativity can finally take over: you try adding new spices (other than salt and pepper!); try roasting instead of using a skillet; experiment with soy sauce and maple syrup instead of butter and garlic, etc.

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Image from Canva

Looking back now, I think one of the reasons why I was so unhappy is because I never allowed my mind to be free. I always kept everything tightly under control, always drawing within the lines, never making mistakes or daring to do things just for the sake of it.  

Cooking helped me change that.

Related article: How to become more creative even without any artistic skills.

16. Cooking significantly reduced my environmental anxiety

Every time I would purchase take-out (which was pretty often before this blog and before Covid), I would inevitably blame myself over and over for single-handedly destroying the planet. Yeah, I thought that.

The guilt was real, debilitating, and permanent. Everyday I would feel torn between feeding myself or contributing to killing sea turtles. Every. Single. Day. The level of self-loathing and anxiety was unbearable.  

Now that I almost only eat home-cooked meals, this feeling has completely disappeared.

Related post: How I got rid of my crippling anxiety for good

17. I began to love myself a little more

In the past, the only time I didn’t entirely dislike cooking was if I was making something for my boyfriend for example. Then, I would pour my heart and soul into making him something as tasty as possible for my limited skills. But I never did that for me.

Why is it that we can put so much love into keeping someone else alive (quite literally), and not do it for ourselves? I guess I didn’t think I was worthy of the same marks of affection and care as other people?

Cooking for myself has transformed those limiting beliefs. Now I put as much love and effort into cooking for me as I do for someone else.

Conclusion

Learning how to cook when you’re depressed is like hitting 15 birds with one stone. It’s probably the last thing you want to do, and yet it’s possibly the single best thing you could do to improve your mental well-being. This, and working out.

I don’t EVER feel like cooking. But after doing it, I’ve never regretted it.

Sometimes what you feel like doing or want to do is not what’s best for your body and your soul. It is very important to recognize this, accept it, and behave accordingly if you are to ever come out of depression.

If you make yourself do just one thing today, make it cooking for yourself, even the simplest meal you can think of. You will feel better after I promise.

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About Steph

I am a personal growth/self-management enthusiast. I was able to completely transform my life using everything I share here. I hope this blog helps you transform yours as well.
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