A deep dive into the psychology behind the Corona-inspired home baking phenomenon.
My Instagram feed is full of people baking banana bread.
Friends who have never baked before have suddenly gone all Martha-freaking-Stewart on me. Carb-fearing influencers are abandoning their skinny teas and embracing their inner #CoronaBaker. Hell, even I shared a time-tested recipe on my Instagram stories. But why?
Is it the connection to childhood memories of baking with a family member? Is it capturing a snapshot of wholesomeness — the kind of home comfort that might help diminish our Coronavirus anxieties? Does being forcibly separated from family mean we attempt to manifest the ‘family feeling’ by baking?
Or are we all just really bored?
Whatever it is, you’re not imagining it. The influx of banana bread images in your Instagram feed is real — even Google Trends has shown a marked uptick in searches for banana bread recipes over the last month.
As toilet paper and pasta slowly return to the shelves, flour is still in short supply — it seems our panic baking is overtaking our panic pooping. There has even been a spike in cake mix sales; just last week Woolworths CEO, Brad Banducci reported that packet cake mix was one of the biggest growth categories at the moment.
So what’s behind our sudden obsession with banana bread? Psychologist Liam Casey says it’s all part of our attempts to self-soothe.
“Food is a reward — we often use words like ‘treat’ to describe foods like banana bread. In a time when we feel uncertain, giving ourselves a literal treat can be a way of feeling soothed and cared for.
“Baking can also be an outlet for creativity, and an opportunity to learn new skills. It can give us a sense of achievement and pride, which is important in a time when things feel so out of control and we feel powerless as individuals.”
Similarly, counsellor and psychotherapist Katerina Georgiou tells us our panic baking tendencies reveal our underlying focus on comfort and control.
“In uncertain times, many will try and establish some kind of control to cope — food is a common aspect of our lives we take control from,” she told Grazia UK this week. “The act of baking… engages our five senses, which is an important part of grounding when feeling anxious to bring us back into the present.
“In baking, we use our hands, we engage our sense of smell, we feast our eyes, we hear the sounds of the kitchen and ultimately taste the food. The smell of the cooking can also take us back to comforting places of childhood when we were being looked after.”
It seems we need the small comforts now more than ever. With family and friends out of reach, it can feel like the warm embrace of a slice of banana bread is the only thing looking after us at the moment.
As we tune into the morning news, the daily Coronavirus updates feed our anxieties — and with lockdown measures in full force around the globe, our lack of personal freedom delivers a lot of time to consider our vulnerabilities.
“In these times all of us are experiencing a strongly reduced sense of control over our lives,” Consumer psychologist Kate Nightingale told Stylist this week. “Self-reliance is a manifestation of control and therefore helps us to meet one of those truly basic human needs: safety. Baking bread is the ultimate act of self-reliance.”
But it’s not only banana bread we’re burying our anxiety in. Social media is awash with craft, DIY, and knitting how-to’s as we attempt to find ways to pass the time. These kinds of homely activities are something many of us would never tackle in the ‘real world’— but in the post-Corona world? Well, let’s say our local hardware store has never had so many customers.
“We tend to be so busy with our lives, running from work to the gym to parties, and so on,” says Casey. “With all of that noise removed from our lives, we’re left with space to do things we’ve always wanted to try, or hobbies we’ve lost touch with because our lives have become so busy.”
“There’s a key component of cognitive-behavioural treatments for depression called behavioural activation. What it encourages people to do is engage with activities that give them pleasure, achievement, or both. The idea is that, over time, people engage with the things that really matter to them and connect with a sense of joy and self-efficacy that can help them reverse some of the unhelpful cycles of depression.
“I think both pleasure and achievement are very much inherent to baking, knitting, and all these other ‘old-fashioned’ activities. There’s so much in the world we can’t control right now, but we can enjoy time spent creating something, and feel proud of the things we learn and make.”
So how do we address these feelings? Is baking another loaf of banana bread really going to help? Casey says there are a bunch of simple changes you can make to your isolation routine that will help ease the impacts of the uncertain times we live in.
“First, acknowledging that it’s okay to be feeling anxious is important. The human mind loves predictability and hates uncertainty, so when the whole world is turned upside down, it’s no wonder we all feel a little on edge. But despite all that, focus on the things that are in your control.
“Limit your access to news and social media, and be thoughtful of where you receive your information. Look to Government officials and reputable news sources, instead of listening to what your Aunt Betty heard from her neighbour whose son-in-law’s cousin is a doctor.”
Or, maybe, just bake a loaf of banana bread, says Nightingale.
“The smell of baking bread or cakes is subconsciously associated with a warm family atmosphere and therefore a sense of child-like comfort and safety. This is something we all need to feel right now — even if we’re not admitting it to ourselves.”
Follow Bianca’s slow descent into apartment-isolation madness on Instagram at @bianca.oneill.
If you’re struggling with mental health in isolation, this newly-launched BeyondBlue page is an excellent resource: https://coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au/
There’s also This Way Up, a self-guided online treatment service developed by CRUfAD (Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression at St Vincent’s Hospital). They’ve made their evidence-based treatments available for free right now, and have collected some useful psychological tools: https://covid19.thiswayup.org.au/
Psychology Tools also created a great workbook about anxiety and worry in times of global uncertainty. It can be downloaded in multiple languages: https://www.psychologytools.com/articles/free-guide-to-living-with-worry-and-anxiety-amidst-global-uncertainty/