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What to do when cooking is a struggle

Anyone who knows me well knows I love to cook and bake. People ask a lot what my favorite things to make are, and I have a hard time answering. It is all about learning a new technique and mastering skills. Lately, I have been into the art of pasta and bread making. I love the kneading, the waiting, the baking. I love learning how the same ingredients with different moisture levels can make a completely different item. In case you haven't gotten it yet, I love cooking.

Despite my love of cooking, I know it is not everyone's passion. Many people have a completely different reaction - one of dread or fear. Over the years of working in the eating disorder field, I have observed that many people dealing with the struggles of an eating disorder also struggle with cooking. In this post, I'll discuss the body's response to stressors like cooking, common reasons why cooking can be a stressor, and ways to combat it.

The Body's Response

Many of you have heard the story of the Pavlovian response. For those who have not, Ivan Pavlov conducted an experience that fathered what we now call Classical Conditioning. The experiment he completed was introducing a bell every time he fed his dog. Eventually, when he rang the bell, the dog would continue to salivate even without the presence of food. Pavlov conditioned unconscious responses with stimuli.

We see the same conditioned response in people who struggle with cooking. When you perceive the conditioned response as a threat, you initiate a fight/flight/freeze response. When a threat is perceived, the hypothalamus communicates to the autonomic nervous system to release the stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol. When these are released, they are transmitted to the body and automatically influence our respiratory system, heart rate, and glucose levels. As a result, energy is toned down for non-vital organs, and processes necessary for threats are enhanced.

For someone who struggles with cooking, every time they walk into the kitchen, open the refrigerator, put dishes away, or organize the pantry, their autonomic nervous system is activated, reinforcing a negative response to cooking. Think about it. If you began sweating, heart-pounding, and breathing heavily every time you entered your kitchen, you would do what you could to avoid that reaction.

Common Reasons for the Stress Response

The other day I saw a meme on Instagram that read, "Why does cooking take like six hours, and eating like three seconds, and washing dishes like seven days and seven nights?" I chuckled a bit but then reflected on the experience of those with barriers to cooking. The first reason that the thought of cooking induces the stress response is exhaustion.

As we have made life simpler through technology, it has also become more complicated. Instead of waiting for the mail, people are now bombarded with hundreds or thousands of emails daily. Instead of commuting between meetings, people cram in more meetings because they are virtual. Life is exhausting today! It is, so I want to start by validating that fact.

Even aspects of our eating have become more straightforward. For example, someone who does not want to deal with a grocery store can use meal delivery kits or get groceries delivered. Likewise, if someone doesn't have time to cook, they can drive through a drive-through or have food delivered.

Historically, tasks like meal planning, grocery shopping, meal preparation, cooking, and cleaning were the only options; therefore, people prioritized the time for those tasks.

Ever been around someone who cringed handling something like raw chicken. Maybe that is you. I have found that people struggle with cooking because of texture or sensory issues. Navigating the cooking process when one has aversive experiences with certain textures can be nearly impossible.

Others have such ingrained beliefs about food that cooking can be terrifying. I have worked with some that believed fat could be absorbed through the skin and cause weight gain. Some people I have worked with spend the entire time cooking thinking about the energy intake of certain foods. The experience can be completely overwhelming, and it makes sense that the third reason people avoid cooking is out of fear.

Similarly, others may experience the fear response but to different circumstances. For example, I've known people afraid to handle knives for fear of hurting themselves or others—this last category of cooking avoidance centers around a fear of aversive events.

Useful Strategies

I could categorize the reasons mentioned above even further as mood-related events and anxiety-related events. Therefore, it would make sense that the strategies I would pull from include mood-improving and anxiety-reducing techniques.

The first one I want to discuss is "behavioral activation," a technique pulled from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and can be a treatment on its own. All human beings regulate their mood by balancing pleasurable activities and where you experience mastery. But, unfortunately, some activities in our lives are neither pleasant nor masterful, such as grocery shopping.

I think Newton's Law of Energy can also apply to people. Think about a time when you were more lethargic. It likely took longer to get going again than it usually would. The problem is that many people struggle with balance. They look at a task like cooking as this daunting elaborate task, and I won't lie, it can be. However, when a person is thoughtful and prioritizes cooking, breaking down tasks simplifies the process. For example, some families grocery shop by buying random items without thinking about what they will cook with the things. When meal planning occurs before grocery shopping, by the time cooking comes, you don't have to think about what you will eat and what you will need.

Additionally, I would find ways to make cooking more enjoyable. For example, maybe turn on music and dance around while chopping produce (just be careful). Just like Pavlov's dog, introducing a pleasant stimulus can create a different response to something like going into the kitchen to begin cooking.

For those whose struggles with cooking center around fear, I would suggest finding ways to expose yourself to the process. Plan it out, however. The idea with exposure is not that you won't feel a response anymore, but rather that you will get more comfortable with discomfort. You may be inclined to pull away from the exposure by "zoning out," stopping altogether, or changing the activity as planned, so it is crucial to have a plan in place to stay engaged. That also means you may need to be aware of your avoidance strategies.

Exposure work can be pretty tricky when attempted independently. Therefore, I would encourage the support of a mental health therapy while trying exposure work to ensure efficacy. Then, the well-researched and specifically implemented treatment, Exposure and Response Prevention, can be implemented more effectively. I am trained in and experienced with Exposure and Response Prevention for Iowa, Nebraska, and Ohio residents.

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