May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which has been observed in the United States since 1949. It’s part of a bigger national movement to raise awareness about mental health, fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for policies that support those affected by mental illness.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one in five US adults live with a mental illness, ranging from mild to moderate to severe. It’s estimated that 57.8 million adults aged 18 or older in the US had a mental illness in 2021.
Mental health treatment – including therapy, medication and self-care – makes recovery possible for most people. There are many options for self-care specifically, one of which is creative outlets.
For a job that can be physically demanding, bakers generally seem to be in positive moods throughout the course of their days. Science may suggest that this can be attributed to their profession of choice.
According to a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology in late 2016, creative endeavors such as cooking or baking can make people happier. For bakers, this experience is twofold – not only do they receive the positive effect from achieving creative growth, but they also have the knowledge that their creations are making others happier as well.
Jack Hazan is taking that to heart in New York City. The baker turned therapist uses baking techniques to help his clients. While studying at New York University in 2016, he started his business JackBakes to make and sell challah products.
Using his baking expertise in his therapy practice, Hazan is benefiting New Yorkers. Through individual sessions, he infuses recipes with coping mechanisms and other key therapeutic techniques to bring about a healthier life.
In his new cookbook, Mind Over Batter: 75 Recipes for Baking as Therapy, Hazan guides readers through 75 recipes that recruit therapeutic techniques readers can tap into right in their own kitchen. Inspired by the Syrian and Middle Eastern baked goods he grew up eating, as well as classic American desserts, the recipes are organized by common life moments and needs – whether readers are looking to ease anxiety, let go of frustration, foster connection or are simply seeking some self-care.
Hazan states that baking as therapy is not a cure for anything as much as it’s a method to soothe and manage the symptoms of what’s going on in your life. It allows you to redirect your energy and changes the way you react to those moments.
“The end result of baking is the delicious treat that nourishes your soul and fills your stomach,” he says. “It also allows you to connect with others—something we as humans need. Offering up a delicious baked treat is a gateway to starting a conversation and building a bond with someone, which is also highly beneficial for our mental health.”
Bake recently spoke to Hazan about his new book and baking as a therapeutic technique.
Baking, in addition to other creative endeavors, has long been associated with positive mental health. Have you experienced that, both in your own baking and for your clients?
Hazan: “I have, for sure. I want to say it was by mistake, but it was more unintentional. Baking helped my mental health while I was going through the NYU grad school program to become a licensed therapist. Baking challah (my go-to) helped keep me calm and ease the stress of classes, exams and general life. I had never given it a label. I noticed something similar with my clients. Bringing them into the kitchen—or giving them baking as an exercise to do at home—brought a layer of familiarity and calm to our conversations. It allowed them to express themselves better. More importantly, it gave them a powerful tool that they can use anytime they need it, outside of our sessions, to help them navigate whatever they're going through.”
Did that have an especially strong effect during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic?
“1000%. The first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic were especially trying; we were grieving the loss of social connections, parties and not being able to see our parents and friends. I say grieving because the world as we knew it was turned upside down. The expectations we had were suddenly broken, shattering our lives. It changed the way we were experiencing the world, which is a cause for grief. But baking comforted us. It provided a means to create and calm down, from sourdough to banana bread and everything in between. The uncertainty we were feeling in the world around us was countered with the certainty that we could step into the kitchen, bake our favorite treat and know that it would come out delicious.”
What led you to write this book?
“I’ve always found baking to be therapeutic. It started as a kid when I would make challah with my Grandma Peggy, and she would inquire about my day and how I was doing. When I became a licensed psychotherapist, I was able to understand the how and the why of what I was feeling. From there, I was able to marry the two. As my NYU professor astutely told me, “Baking is therapy!” I know what’s happening in the mind and body and I know what’s happening in the kitchen. This book is intended to give bakers of all ages the tools to have a therapeutic experience while baking (which might be a shift from how they normally bake) but also for them to understand the how and the why behind their emotions or what they’re going through. For example, if kneading dough feels like a stress ball, here’s why that’s beneficial and why you shouldn’t be afraid to really give in to it. As grandma Peggy would say, “Jack, don’t worry about the dough. It can take it.””
How can retail bakers apply these techniques to their own baking?
“Retail bakers are still bakers! There’s maybe elevated pressure being applied. There’s the need to get the pastries done and done right. It’s focused on the output so consumers can purchase, help keep the business going, etc. That’s a lot of pressure! But you can still bake for the masses and feel like you’re taking time for yourself, helping to preserve your mental health in the process. As someone who has a commercial kitchen for my JackBakes brand, I know firsthand what it’s like to be stressed from every angle. Baking as therapy requires a step back, a deep breath and to find grounding. Don’t go into the kitchen with all of frantic energy, it can be quite distracting and potentially ruin the batch of whatever you’re baking.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind. Remember to focus on the task in front of you. Take a deep breath and take a moment to register the aromas of the kitchen surrounding you. Try to feel crunching, chopping, whisking and kneading techniques. Don’t go into the kitchen on autopilot because if you’re feeling “all over the place,” autopilot doesn’t work out as well as you’d like. The key is to be mindful and intentional when you step into the kitchen, whether it’s at home or at the bakery.”