The Evolution of Cooking Shows, featuring Anxiety

These days, I’m not too big a fan of TV in general.  Growing up, like most self-respecting child-products of the nineties, I watched the Simpsons religiously (5 pm every weekday with new episodes Sundays at 9), and could tell you exactly when the show started to go downhill (I’m sure all the good writers died), as well as give you a first hand account of the craziness that took over the world in the summer of 1995 while we were forced to wait a whole 4 months to find out who shot Mr. Burns.

In recent years I’ve found that I just don’t have the patience for TV.  I should probably specify that by saying that I have not purposefully set aside time for the sole purpose of watching a particular show in a long time.  The commercials, combined with the fact that there is really not much that I find worthwhile to watch, have wholly converted me to the practice of watching TV series on DVD, and I’m certain that the experience is 10 times more pleasurable.

yan can cook

Martin Yan back in his glory days

Having said that, there are a couple of notable exceptions.  Living in a semi-rival city, I don’t often get to watch games featuring my team, so I usually watch the occasional ones that I can.  But the place where I easily spend my most time in TV land is the Food Network.  I don’t know what it is, but I love cooking shows.  I have since I was quite young and used to watch (fantastic) shows like The Urban Peasant and Yan Can Cook.  Back then, there wasn’t a Food Network to speak of.  These shows were running on local TV stations during daytime TV hours.

Despite the basic premise of filming someone cooking food, cooking shows have evolved somewhat.  There are still great shows that follow the basic formula – I’m a big fan of Chef At Home – but by and large, cooking shows have become one of two things: “reality” shows with a competition-based cook-off, or the standard-esque formula delivered towards a niche audience with or without an obvious twist.  Both categories are home to a great many terrible shows and also some that are worth watching.  From the former, I would recommend anything featuring Gordon Ramsey.  The man is a genius.  I’m a fan of a lot of the grill-based shows in the latter category, as well (as long as it’s not Road Grill… the horror…Matt Dunnigan, you are my worst grill-based nightmare).

By this point, you’re no doubt wondering: Dave, it’s great that you think so many fascinating thoughts about cooking shows, but why are you writing about them here, on a psychology-themed blog?

matt dunnigan and gordon ramsay

Matt Dunnigan? No. For the love of God, no. Gordon Ramsay? That's more like it.

Relax, I was getting there.  See, there’s a show that started airing on the Food Network this season that seemed from the name alone that it had just gone too far.  Deviated too far from the mean of what makes a cooking show good, into the realm of the extreme for the sake of being extreme.  I’m talking about a show called Bitchin’ Kitchen.  From what I can gather (gasp! No Wikipedia article!), the show’s humble origins were online before it was picked up by the Food Network.

Anyway, the show is hosted by Nadia G., (or ‘Nads,’ as she self-refers) a young woman with a burly New York-esque Italian (eye-talian) accent, decked out in punk rock gear and brightly coloured make-up.  The show features recipes like “one night stand breakfast,” “pissed penne,” and “get famous frittata.”  Points for originality, sure.  Hey, points for comedy while we’re at it.  Maybe even some points for trying to make cooking shows cool.  But again, something just seems wrong about it all.  Am I too much of an old-school cooking show purist?  What happened to the days of gray-haired, overweight people using a stick of butter per recipe? (you don’t count, Paula Deen… you’re too… Southern.)

bitchin kitchen

Nadia G. rocking a frying pan

Regardless, the particular episode that I watched was called “Anxiety Stricken Chicken,” which is what made me decide to write this post.  The link above is to the web episode, not the Food Network one, so there are some differences.  Read the by-line for the episode for yourself:

Anxiety is the plague of the Net Generation. In this episode Nadia G. teaches us how to cook a chicken soup that will sooth the soul, the way mom used to make it… unless mom was a crack-ho, but that’s another episode.

Crack-hos aside, the episode makes frequent pokes at anxiety and the people that suffer from it.  Nadia G. talks about having her own panic attacks as if they were a psychotic break (“hundreds of skinless creatures crawling all over the room,” which she later cites as the reason for straining the chicken skin from her soup).  There is even a reference to anxious people being nerds.  For most of the episode, Nadia makes references to being obsessed with a lump on her neck.  She lists “cloneezapam” as an ingredient in the soup (“clonazepam” aka klonopin is a widely used and quite potent benzodiazepine, a class of anti-anxiety medication). Towards the end of the episode, she opines,

For the longest time, I was convinced that my panic attacks were due to rocking too hard.  So, I cleaned up my act, and surprise, surprise: life still sucks!

I haven’t made up my mind about whether this is the kind of humour that’s hurting society’s perception of mental illness and more specifically anxiety and anxiety sufferers or if, a la the racially charged comedic stylings of Russell Peters, the ability to make fun of anxiety is actually a crucial step in raising our awareness of it.  Conquering it.  Though Peters is a a minority who makes fun of minorities, so that changes the rules a bit.  Does Nadia G. really suffer crippling panic attacks?  It’s quite possible, but we may never know.

One thing’s for certain.  Whether or not the humour is good-intentioned and whether it raises awareness or it further raises stigmatization, until we see more of a positive presence of mental illness in the media, it doesn’t really matter.

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One thing I always say about anxiety

For quite some time, and likely still, the “common cold” of mental health seemed to be depression.  Statistics are hovering around the 1 in 10 mark for experiencing a depressive episode in one’s lifetime, with men being the more likely gender to suffer it.  Keeping in mind, of course, that these are only reported cases in which a diagnosis was given.  If we acknowledge that in a lot of cases a depressive episode will go unreported and undiagnosed, that number goes up a significant amount.  I would guess that it doubles at least.

But this is not a post about depression.

I recently decided to go through the list of people that I’ve seen in the last 8 months and tally up the “presenting concerns.”  The issue at the top of the list, unsurprisingly, was our common cold – depression (incidentally, only a small fraction of these people had a diagnosed ‘disorder’ such major depressive disorder – though many met the criteria).  But coming up at a close second was another issue that has been, in my view, becoming more and more prevalent: anxiety.

It’s not always easy to separate the two.  In fact, in the DSM-V, they are flirting with creating a new diagnostic category called mixed anxiety depression because the two so often play together.

In any case, if I were to count the number of issues of my clients without limiting it to one issue per client, I’m confident that anxiety would be at the top of the list.  It’s just something that accompanies other problems.  And there’s good reason for that, which I’ll get into shortly.

Now, I’m not too big a fan of the manualization of therapy.  I like to think that each individual person that I sit with has a unique life situation and that there are many equally valid ways of resolving whatever distress they are going through, and that we have to work to find out which way is going to be the most productive.  I have a problem with pretending to know exactly what is required to do to ‘fix’ a person before I even know anything about them.

However, when it comes to anxiety (and perhaps more specifically, panic), there’s come to be one thing that I ALWAYS do, and it couldn’t be simpler.  It takes 5 minutes.  It’s so simple that I’m going to do it with you, right now, because I know that you’ve experienced anxiety before and that this might be new information for you.  But that’s all it is: information.  So, without further ado, I present to you…

A Brief Discussion on the Physiological/Evolutionary Nature of Anxiety
with illustration!

At some point in our evolutionary history, the fact that some folks had something that we now call the ‘autonomic nervous system’ became somewhat of a survival advantage.  You see, this nifty gifty had  two sub-systems: one called the sympathetic and one called the parasympathetic nervous system.  The former had this neat function where it got us really pumped up in response to some kind of threat in our environment.  Maybe a poisonous snake crossed your path, maybe some pre-historic douche-canoe was making moves on a certain female member of the species that you wouldn’t mind impregnating.  In any case, a threat is detected.  This is where the sympathetic nervous system decides to step in and do its thing.  Suddenly, more blood starts pumping out to your arm and leg muscles, your heart rate doubles, breathing becomes fast and shallow, and your pupils dilate, and all sorts of chemical changes start happening.  In a split second, you are literally stronger, faster, and more alert.  Now, you have much more capacity with which to either flee the threat or engage it physically.  This is what is more popularly known as the fight/flight response.

This is all well and good.  Obviously this all developed over generations and the process of evolution refined it to be what it is today.  But as with so many traits that allowed us to survive in an ancestral environment, it doesn’t always function with the same level of effectiveness in our lives today.  The simple fact of the matter is that, for the more fortunate of us, we don’t live life surrounded by the possibility of constant threats to our survival.

So, for those of us who don’t have problems with anxiety or panic, this system tends to be well-regulated most of the time.  Every now and then a legitimate threat is perceived and you’ll get that response happening, but most of the time, when faced with normal everyday stimuli, nothing happens.

When we start talking about anxiety, and particularly with panic attacks, what effectively has happened is that the sympathetic nervous system’s threshold has been lowered way down.  It’s been over-sensitized for some reason (which obviously varies depending on one’s history – in the case of trauma there is very good reason for this).  But the point is that there is a natural, physiological process that is happening – one that was well-developed back when our ancestors didn’t have the cognitive abilities that we now possess in order to make logical sense of the the world around us.

So, when someone with social anxiety begins to have a panic attack when forced to interact in a group, we (and they) can easily come to the conclusion that it just doesn’t make any sense for that to happen – nothing bad is going to come out of it and there is no logical reason to become anxious.  But on a deeper level, this system that’s basically been told to go into red alert status starts going off the rails.

So what about this other subsystem of the autonomic nervous system – the parasympathetic one?  This one is actually responsible for the exact opposite function of its sister – it calms us down when a threat is no longer present.  Our blood begins to flow back to our core, heart rate slows, pupils return to normal size, breathing slows, and all sorts of chemical changes happen.  It’s no longer adaptive to be hyper-vigilant and ready to spring at the drop of a pin.  And this is also the system that has to start kicking in when maladaptive anxiety is starting to cause panic.

It’s just not possible for both of these systems to be fired up at the same time.  You can’t be anxious and relaxed simultaneously.  And this is the bottom line of what I say to anxious people.  The beauty of it is that there is an incredibly simple way to kick-start the parasympathetic nervous system’s calming effects – it’s as simple as taking control of your breath.  Slow down your breathing, you slow down your heart rate, and just maybe, that gets some of the other processes going.

I find it to be a hopeful message.  It’s just a starting point, and it’s by no means the ideal, ultimate  solution to anxiety, but it is simple enough that it’s worth saying every time.