When entering my kitchen one day triggered a physical reaction that ended in gagging profusely, I knew something wasn’t right. Despite the fact that my landlord had picked a repulsive countertop, my reaction had more to do with an existential dread to cook than ’80s interior design.
Naturally, I had figured my 900-square-foot apartment would eventually feel tired after months upon months of staying within its asbestos-ridden walls during the COVID-19 pandemic. But I was surprised that setting foot in my kitchen was the last thing I wanted to do. From tallying grocery needs to standing over my stove (an act I had previously loved so dearly), suddenly I was just over it.
I’m no stranger to burnout. I’ve worked in both the entertainment and digital publishing industries, where burnout is plentiful. But this was frustrating. Taking out the trash or moving my car for street sweeping is annoying, but tasks that I willingly participate in because I have to. Cooking was something I had previously looked forward to, researched and cultivated. Now, it was my worst enemy. Thinking about food became too much. Eventually, I ended up supporting local restaurants as I watched my bank account empty with each meal.
When I pressed friends and family, they agreed. The topic of food was exhausting. What to eat, from where and when was frustrating. Coupled with the anxiety of sanitizing each plastic container or grocery store milk carton, the once-beloved necessity became the ultimate chore. From feeding large families to brainstorming food for ailing relatives, anxiety surrounded every facet. And it felt that food, cooking and eating were the ultimate betrayals during a global pandemic.
I sought out professional help. Cary Cherniss is an organizational and community psychologist, emeritus professor of applied psychology at Rutgers University and a published author. His latest book ”Leading with Feeling: Nine Strategies of Emotionally Intelligent Leadership,” came out in July. Here’s how he said we can cope.
First, know what burnout looks like
“Burnout is a feeling of severe physical and/or emotional exhaustion, resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” Cherniss said.
Burnout is typically associated with work, but living in lockdown can lead to the same feeling ― or an even worse one. Before the pandemic, your daily work burnout may have dissipated when you left the office at 6 p.m. But when you’re working at home full time, the feeling of all-encompassing burnout is overwhelming.
“In addition to feelings of depletion, we begin to experience negative feelings toward activities that we previously enjoyed,” Cherniss told HuffPost. “We also become detached from the work. We lose interest in doing it and find it increasingly difficult to motivate ourselves. So, in the case of cooking, doing even a limited amount of it would leave us feeling exhausted, and we would increasingly dislike it. We would avoid doing it as much as possible, and when we had to do it, we would put in the minimal amount of effort and feel resentful about having to do it.”
If you’re still scratching your head as to how a passion can turn into a burden, consider your meal options pre-pandemic, compared with now. Before, you could easily grab a coffee and bagel on the go, perhaps lunch at an office cafeteria, and go to a restaurant for dinner. During the pandemic, those options have been taken away or greatly reduced, making preparing food necessary multiple times a day.
“Cooking is rewarding for many people. However, it can also become another source of stress and burnout, especially in the environment created by the current pandemic,” Cherniss said. “When people must cook the same things every day, the lack of variety and freedom of choice can lead to stress and burnout. When people feel that cooking is not meaningful and intrinsically rewarding, then it becomes just another chore.”
And the myriad ingredient shortages that were common early in the lockdown only increased the pressure.
“Obstacles or limitations also contribute to burnout,” Cherniss said. “So, for instance, if one is not able to get many of the ingredients necessary for the kind of cooking that one would like to do, cooking can become a source of frustration and burnout.”
And then there’s the pressure to cook for your loved ones. “Having to divide one’s attention among other pressing commitments, such as caring for others who are ill, overseeing children’s learning or managing one’s own illness, also can make it more difficult to invest the time and effort that make cooking pleasurable,” Cherniss said. “As a result, it becomes just one more demand on one’s time.”
Add all those elements together, and it’s no wonder you hate cooking. It’s a virtual pressure cooker of anxiety bubbling up in a very small pot.
So how to cope? Finding solace in preparing food is vital to survival. Cherniss recommends employing some coping mechanisms.
“Setting aside time each day for meaningful, rewarding activity can be especially effective in avoiding burnout,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a lot of time. Sometimes a few minutes is all we need to recharge. To be meaningful, an activity should involve optimally challenging tasks ― not too difficult but challenging enough so that we feel a sense of accomplishment when we complete the task successfully.”
But there also should be variety, Cherniss stressed.
“For example, rather than cooking the same things day after day, experiment with new dishes. Autonomy and control also are important: the activity should be something that you choose and that you can do without too much interference or constraints imposed by others. Working with others can also make an activity more rewarding and meaningful. Try cooking with another person sometimes. But keep in mind that working with others can also be a source of conflict and frustration, so it sometimes is better to do an activity that you really like on your own.”
It may feel ridiculous to complain about a task that is necessary for survival, but burnout is real in all its various forms. Eventually, you’ll probably circle back to finding the joy in cooking.
Meantime, just take it easy.
A HuffPost Guide To Coronavirus