The Power of Ritual
I make challah every week. Unless I am traveling, I bake this bread every Friday. In the last year, with three teenagers and often their friends in tow, I have doubled the recipe most Fridays. I have made it from scratch for over ten years; which means I have made over 1,000 challahs. I have made challah overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, while working and having babies and raising those babies; while trying to keep at least three goldfish alive – alas, unsuccessfully, I must add, for those poor goldfish.
I made challah while mourning the loss of both my father-in-law and then a year later, my own father. I have made challah while working as a busy physician at one of the world’s top hospitals and while working as a stay-at-home mom. I usually bake this bread alone. Sometimes I make it with other women, some of who are my dearest friends and some I haven’t even met until our hands are deep in a bowl of flour.
I started making challah because countless demands on my time and energy overwhelmed me, literally and figuratively. Because as a physician I know all too well that stress like this makes us sick – not just theoretically sick, but actually sick. Through this repetitive weekly action of making homemade bread I have come to appreciate a simple way to manage my stress. Making bread became part of my quest for a healthy lifestyle. I learned that I could stop and breathe while I cracked eggs and measured flour and watch the yeast bubble. I could stop and make something with my own hands. In the process, I reconnect with myself and with other women. I found how to be present.
Stress management comes in all shapes and sizes; maybe it’s baking, gardening, or knitting. What matters for a healthy life is that you manage your stress so that it doesn’t manage you. Something that gets you out of your head, that forces you to stop. To be present. To use your hands. To be accountable.
Why do I focus on stress management? Because I know that stress exacerbates chronic diseases, such as breast cancer. Therefore, managing stress is one more tool in the toolbox to successfully managing this disease. In fact, a recent article in Cancer Medicine* looking at mindfulness and patients with breast cancer found improvements in not only mood & mental health, but also in immune function. I think that’s awesome. Whether it’s kneading dough repetitively on a countertop like I do, or perhaps listening to a meditation app or perhaps weeding your garden, incorporating stress management as part of a healthy lifestyle benefits you both at that moment and in the longterm.
*(Kenne Sarenmalm E, Mårtensson LB2, Andersson BA3, Karlsson P4, Bergh I2.Mindfulness and its efficacy for psychological and biological responses in women with breast cancer. Cancer Med. 2017 Apr 18. doi: 10.1002/cam4.1052. [Epub ahead of print])
This piece is adapted from an essay that first appeared on Sharsharet.org