Cooking Up Better Mental Well-Being

A Culinary Therapist explains how to lose emotional weight in the kitchen.

By: Karyn Trepanier
Cooking Up Better Mental Well-Being

Debra Borden, LCSW, wasn’t surprised at all that so many people found a new passion for baking sourdough bread during last year’s quarantine. Cooking is a source of comfort, one she often prescribes. Traditional talk therapy helps you work through your feelings during a one-on-one session sitting directly across from a therapist. But, Debra finds that this model can be counterproductive for some of her patients. Cooking therapy, she says, can help put people at ease and open up with more vulnerability. 

“I knew that I got that zen feeling from cooking myself,” she recently told rē•spin. “I would treat what was going on in my own life with baking, or making a sauce, or chopping away if I was angry.” She decided to incorporate cooking into sessions with patients that had difficulty accessing their feelings and it has been so effective she’s now referred to as The Sous Therapist. Today, the goal of her practice is to help you cook your way through life’s challenges by creating mental health moments in the kitchen. 

From Experiential to Expressive

Culinary therapy is technically a form of experiential therapy. This type of therapy is defined as therapeutic techniques involving expressive tools and activities to help patients rē•experience emotional situations. “You can very quickly have an aha moment in experiential therapy,” Debra explains. Art therapy, music therapy, and equine therapy are other popular forms of experiential therapy that are used with great success. “These types of therapies are very similar because even though you’re talking, they’re all less verbal. You’re doing, it’s tangible, it’s concrete. It’s not just looking into another person’s eyes and trying to think in your head and pull out these inner feelings.” 

The act of doing, and in Debra’s case cooking, has a way of getting people to open up more authentically. In fact, Steve Jobs is famous for never taking meetings sitting directly across from someone one-on-one. His favorite way to hold a meeting was by walking with an employee, partner, or potential collaborator. While research shows that walking next to someone for just four and half minutes can help you better connect with them, Steve chose to walk during his meetings because people were more open with him, and at the height of his success, less intimidated to give him real feedback. Creative ideas and solutions seemed to flow more freely.

Debra acknowledges the position of power therapists can seem to be in during a traditional therapy session. For many of her patients, having to make eye contact while opening up about deeply personal feelings makes them feel too exposed. She recalls one teenage patient, whose parents were going through a difficult divorce and only wanted to be referred to as Katniss, the lead heroine in The Hunger Games Series. She sat in silence during traditional therapy sessions, before having a break-through moment while mashing ground meat together making meatballs with Debra. “This is what I’m going to do to my Dad’s new wife,” she whispered. It was a dark thought, but Debra was elated. Admitting those real feelings, especially the ones hidden in the shadows, is an important step on the path towards better mental well-being. 

Mindfulness, Metaphor, and Mastery

A therapeutic cooking session with Debra is always consciously designed. She leads each session through what she refers to as the 3 M’s: Mindfulness, Metaphor, and Mastery. “We have so many sounds in our world that are triggering and put us on high alert, raising our stress and anxiety levels,” Debra says, referring to the often constant ping of notifications on our phones. Mindfulness includes putting your phone away and being fully present to take in the colors, smells, and feel of the food while you cook it. But, it’s the Metaphors that are her secret sauce. 

Debra uses each ingredient and step in the cooking process as a prompt for something deeper. The metaphors she uses are often obvious- kneading away your frustrations, or peeling back the layers of an emotional experience as you peel away at the layers of an onion. When directions call for a teaspoon of salt, for example, she’ll stop you for a minute to ask you to think about a “salty” characteristic of your own, one that makes you uniquely you. Maybe you’re often critical, too stubborn, or confrontational. Debra’s goal is to help you rē•frame these “bad” characteristics and gain a new perspective of yourself. “You can accept your flaws and failures,” she reassures, which is where mastery comes in. 

Mastery in a culinary therapy session is the realization that no matter what you’re going to have something tangible in the end. Fumbles in life and in cooking are often seen as failures, but Debra wants to help people see them as opportunities instead. “Even a failure, like making bread that hasn’t risen and suddenly you can see that you didn’t make this perfect sourdough, but you might have ended up with pita or crackers instead,” she says. “It’s like looking at what you really have and accepting the reality of it, whether it’s a failure or a success.” 

Cooking as a Mental Health Moment

Learning to appreciate the small accomplishment of baking a successful souffle, and rolling with the punches of a sourdough gone awry helps her patients learn to ebb and flow with the unpredictability of life. Life imitates art. The frustrations experienced while cooking can often be telling of what’s troubling us in real life. The wife who feels she can’t do anything right in her marriage is more likely to cry over spilled milk. But, Debra encourages crying, and the milk is just an avenue to help you tap into your deeper feelings.

While anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues are what patients come to her for help with most often, Debra is also called upon to assist with ‘situational issues’. She can help you cook your way through the resentment you’ve harbored towards a passive-aggressive mother in law, and even bake your way to building the confidence needed to ask for a promotion. “Why not have a bite of self-esteem with that salmon?” she jokes.

Culinary therapy is insightful, but it’s also fun. Similar to real life, there might be tears, but there will also be a lot of laughs, and you’re sure to end up with a takeaway. Whether that’s well-risen bread or a new perspective on life is up to you. “I’m fairly certain that many of the lessons I’ve learned in the kitchen guide me through the other chambers of life,” Debra says. “Patience, persistence, mindfulness to details and beauty, and a sense of humor when things don’t go as planned.” 

 

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