How to use baking as your own Therapy
I have included this conversation as part of the welcome module in every course syllabus, and in light of the stress that each one of us in our community is facing at this moment in time, I have left this tutorial open for all bakers to access.
I don’t think that a single person is without need of a way to process the challenges that we face every day. I appreciate that many people bake just to make bread, but if you take the time to watch this video, featuring one of the most amazing people I know, you will discover how you can use baking bread as therapy. It may not necessarily be you that needs this – it might be someone you are close to – but at the heart of everything I teach in the Club is the aim to live the best life possible. So am I delighted to introduce you to our Bread Therapist, Pauline Beaumont.
I came across Pauline via her incredible book Bread Therapy: The Mindful Art of Baking Bread. We connected through our mutual understanding of the importance of baking as a way to support mental health. So I was thrilled when she agreed to join us as our In-House Wellbeing Expert at the Sourdough School.
Pauline works as a student counsellor at Newcastle University. After working in the arts for twenty years, Pauline returned to university to train in psychological therapy and moved to her current job after a period working for the NHS in a primary care mental health service.
She is a passionate believer in the therapeutic value of creativity, of making things by hand, and, in particular, of baking sourdough bread.
Once a month, Pauline is our guest speaker for our Live Clinic in place of Vanessa. You can listen and speak with Pauline via Bread Therapy Live.
Bread Therapy Live is a chance for you to ask Pauline Beaumont – the Sourdough School’s Wellbeing Expert and author of Bread Therapy: The Mindful Art of Baking Bread – any questions you may have about mental health and wellbeing. All Sourdough Club members are welcome to submit questions and participants will be expected to respect the confidentiality of anything they hear from others in the session. This is not a therapy session, but it is an opportunity to have your queries answered and for you to receive advice and guidance about your concerns. View the Live Schedule here.
Become your own bread therapist by Pauline Beaumont
How making bread can help you to manage your mood and anxiety levels.
You couldn’t have a better teacher than Vanessa Kimbell and her Sourdough School. Vanessa will teach you everything you need to know about baking your own wonderfully nutritious sourdough bread. This handout and the talk it accompanies is all about how you can optimise your bread-making to help you to positively influence your mental health.
Introduction to me
I started baking bread at a time in my life when I felt overwhelmed and stressed. I was very much living in my head. I think I was drawn to making bread because of the physicality and the pace of it. Making something from scratch with my own hands was immensely satisfying, and it forced me to slow down. Starting to make sourdough bread felt like coming home; it was soothing and grounding and somehow gave me a sense of safety and belonging.
Helpful ways to think about depression and anxiety
If you are struggling with depression and/or anxiety, then the first thing to do is remind yourself that you are not alone. Many of us have experienced the distress that goes with these conditions, and when you are in the midst of an episode it does sometimes feel as if you are the only one going through it, but you are not. Your experience is uniquely yours, but you are far from alone in your struggles. This is something to take strength from. There are many before you and there will be many who follow you who have managed or will manage to overcome these psychological problems. Change is always possible.
The second important, and helpful, way of thinking about both depression and anxiety is to think of them as bullies. They try to get us to think and act in certain ways that actually keep us trapped with the problem.
This is the great paradox of both depression and anxiety: the things we most feel like doing when we are depressed or anxious are actually the least helpful for us.
When we are depressed, we feel driven to close things down, to make our worlds smaller, to stop doing things, to avoid other people. Robbed of energy, we may find it hard to get out of bed, to get dressed or washed, or to eat properly. These behaviours contribute to our staying depressed. Becoming like a hermit may be comforting in the short term, but in the longer term it makes the problem worse. Once we become consciously aware of how our behaviour, however understandable, is part of the problem rather than the solution, then we can start to try to do the opposite – to concentrate on good self-care, to see other people, to stick to a routine, to do things we don’t feel like doing, to make things.
Similarly, when we are anxious, we feel driven to avoid or escape from the things that we feel are triggering our anxiety and to think about them, sometimes obsessively. Avoidance and escape, of course, make us feel better in the short term, but in the longer term they keep us trapped in the cycle of anxiety. So again, the answer is to find ways of doing the opposite of what the bully, anxiety, is telling you to do. Usually, this means gradually building up your ability to face your fears.
Things that are therapeutic that are not therapy
I work as a psychological therapist, and I think that talking therapies can be incredibly helpful in supporting us to overcome any emotional or mental health problems we may have. At the same time, I have become increasingly aware that there are many things we can do to help ourselves that are highly therapeutic that are not therapy itself. Activities that are therapeutic often involve moving the body, being creative and connecting us with nature and with other people.
Why making bread is so therapeutic
I wrote my book Bread Therapy because I believe passionately that the activity of making bread ticks all of these therapeutic boxes. The rest of this paper is full of tips and guidance on how you can use your bread-making to benefit your mental health, whether you have any diagnosed conditions or not.
- The power of routine
A lack of motivation and energy is not unusual when our mood is low, or our anxiety levels are high. In both cases, if we wait until we feel like doing something, then we may have a long wait. The secret is to find ways of transcending what we feel like doing and instead to do what we know will actually help us. A great ally in this internal battle is routine. Having a routine is like doing a deal with yourself, for example” ‘I am going to get up and have a shower and have a coffee and a slice of wholemeal toast at 9.00am, whether I feel like it or not.’ The key is to start to develop the ability to use routine to enable you to do what is in your own best interests – whether you feel like it or not.
The more we can build healthy routines into our days, the better we can become at overcoming the inertia that can immobilise us. Building the routine of sourdough-making into your week is a brilliant way of giving meaning and structure to your time. The need to double-refresh your starter, to mix and knead your dough, to prove, to shape, to prove again and to bake, all create a schedule that is a starting point for building more general routines and purpose into your days.
Create rhythm in your week by having a regular sourdough routine.
- Good self-care
At the Sourdough School, you will learn about the many ways in which eating sourdough bread can contribute to your health, not least through feeding your gut microbiome. One of the most powerful ways we can give ourselves the message that we are valuable human beings, that we matter and that we are worth looking after, is to choose to give ourselves good, nourishing food to eat.
Eating well is one of four key areas in which we can demonstrate good self-care. In addition to eating a good, varied diet of real foods with a predominance of plants and avoiding all ultra-processed foods, we can look after ourselves by getting enough good-quality sleep, by keeping our bodies moving and exercising, and lastly by developing tried-and-tested ways of countering physical stress in our bodies, such as breathing exercises, yoga or meditation.
By making and giving ourselves highly nutritious sourdough bread made with diverse grains, seeds and botanicals, we are feeding ourselves on many levels. We are making a positive contribution to our overall health (physical and mental) through feeding our gut microbes. who then look after us well. We are also symbolically reinforcing the message to ourselves that we are worth looking after and deserve the best.
As you bake and eat your nourishing sourdough, remember that you are worth nurturing with the best-quality bread and other whole foods; you deserve the best.
- A route to mindfulness
We have become used to trying to do many things at once, such as making the supper while thinking about work, at the same time as supervising homework and listening to a podcast. I’m afraid we delude ourselves, because we can only really concentrate on one thing at a time. We might think we are multi-tasking, but we are really only jumping from one thing to another and not giving anything our full attention. Mindfulness exercises are a brilliant way of training our attention, of learning to focus on what we want to focus on. Depression and anxiety rob us of our attention, pulling it on to negative thoughts. Training ourselves to control our attention through mindfulness techniques is liberating and a powerful tool in our endeavours to counter low mood and anxiety.
Making bread provides us with rich opportunities to practise a mindfulness exercise in which we quieten our thoughts by focusing on our senses. The bread-making process presents us with so many tactile, olfactory, visual and auditory stimuli to focus on that it is the ideal opportunity to practise mindfulness.
While going through every stage of making your bread, slow down and put your attention on what you can feel, smell, see and hear. When other thoughts pop into your mind, choose not to follow them and instead return your attention to your senses. Practising this with your bread will make it easier to redirect your attention in other situations too.
- A way of being creative
How many possible ingredients and recipes do you think there are for making bread? The answer must be more than we can ever count. The Sourdough School has always championed mixing it up, using multiple grains and seeds and other ingredients to maximise diversity, and this is something you can experiment with yourself. You can incorporate herbs, nuts, fruits, vegetables and cheeses or even chocolate into your breads. You can make rolls and twists and different shapes; you can try different ways of scoring your loaves. The possibilities are endless once you have mastered the basics. Of course, not all experiments turn out well, but that is part of the joy of creativity: making something new.
Use your bread-making as a way of expressing your creativity, trying new shapes, combinations and patterns.
- Lifelong learning
Learning new things is a great way of maintaining our brain health and making bread definitely presents us with the opportunity to keep on learning. There are always new techniques, new recipes, new types of bread to try. We can learn how different flours or grains behave, we can become more proficient or even expert at bread-making, but there will still always be new things to learn. This is a really good thing. We all need a balance between comfort and challenge to grow and to be fulfilled. If we just stay in our comfort zones and stick with what we know, we stop learning. If we are too challenged by everything being ultra-difficult we may give up: we need a balance between the familiar and the new.
Bread-making can give us this – and remember, sometimes, it’s when something doesn’t turn out as expected that you can learn the most.
Balance familiar techniques and recipes with challenging yourself by trying something new in your baking.
- Being true to your values
We all have values by which we try to live, and we know that people who, towards the end of their lives, can look back and have a feeling of a life well-lived are those who have managed to have reasonable accord between the things they value, the things that are really important to them and how they have actually spent their time and resources. Very few people have a perfect match, but the more we can shape our everyday decision-making to reflect our values, then the more likely we are to feel authentic and to have a sense of integrity. Making bread gives us many opportunities to make decisions about the ingredients we choose. We might feel it is important to support a local mill and use local flour; it might be important to us to use organic products or to avoid all over-refined elements in baking. We might value the aesthetics of natural materials in our kitchens; we may value handmade utensils and vessels; we might value the beauty of the bread we make. Knowing what is important to us will help us to make decisions about our bread-making that are congruent with what matters to us, and this is good for our mental health.
Think about what matters to you, what principles you want to live by, and use them to inform the decisions you make about your bread.
- Connecting with others
A universal value is the importance of community and relationship for us as human beings. We thrive on connection with others and even if anxiety in social situations is an issue for you, it does not mean that the need for connection is absent. If it didn’t matter, then social anxiety wouldn’t be a problem. Making and sharing bread is a wonderful way of connecting with others. The Sourdough School’s policy of encouraging us all to ‘Bake 2, Give 1’ is a perfect way to use your bread-making to build links with others. We all know the saying ‘actions speak louder than words’, and sometimes, if words are difficult, then making and giving someone a loaf of bread will speak volumes.
For me, I have come to realise that something that matters hugely to me is letting people know they are valued and loved. For me, making and baking and giving someone bread I have made with my own hands is a really good way of communicating this. There may be someone – a neighbour or someone in your wider circle – who is lonely (loneliness is a signal to us that we need to connect). A knock on the door and the gift of a loaf is a fine way to make that connection.
Use your bread-making as a way of connecting with others by sharing your loaves.
I hope these thoughts will help you to use your bread-making to support you in being well in every way. I’ll leave you with the two valuable life lessons that I feel being a bread-maker has taught me.
- In bread-making, as in life, things sometimes do not turn out as expected. It is so important to accept, in our loaves and in our lives, that it is OK to be imperfect; there is no point in beating ourselves up when we make a mistake. We can learn from the things that go wrong, but no good comes from being harsh with ourselves. It is part of the human condition to be flawed, to make mistakes, to do things we regret, and this is OK. We can brush ourselves down, get back up and keep going, and show ourselves the same compassion we would show to a vulnerable person or child. Accept imperfection, learn, and show yourself compassion.
- Change is always possible. Every time I take a loaf of bread out of the oven, a loaf that began life as flour, water and salt, I am reminded that transformation is possible, and it is possible as much for us as people as it is for our loaves. It is never too late to make changes that allow us to live the life we are meant to be living. Just like our bread, we too can be transformed.
Written by Pauline Beaumont
Amazing tips and techniques to calm anxiety and your parasympathetic nervous system through baking by our expert in Mental Health Pauline Beaumont.