Ian O'Leary (c) Dorling Kindersley
For as long as I can remember, my life has been subsumed by the daily grind—a full-time job, freelance writing, relationship maintenance, not to mention the other everyday things life demands of all humans. When I began a journalism course, I added class, homework, and studying to my to-do list. I parsed my schedule by minutes, struggling to find time and energy to do anything that wasn’t necessary for survival. Taking time to decompress wasn’t high on my list of priorities.
Around the same time I started the course, I discovered cake-icing videos on Instagram. The timing was perfect. At the end of the day, I could sink into the cocoon of my duvet and stop my negative thoughts—about my career, my choices, my texting habits—dead in their tracks. I’d type “cake decorating” into Instagram and proceed to zone out on video after video of people assembling and icing beautiful cakes. After bad days, I might watch two dozen before my mind let go of the day and I could drift off to sleep.The videos are nothing new—in 2015, Bustle published a listicle of the “14 Best Cake Decorating Instagrams To Follow To Satisfy Your Fancy Sweet Tooth.” But cake icing videos aren’t about a sweet tooth or even voyeurism into a decadent life for me; they are my meditation, my moment of peace.When I mentioned this to friends, I discovered I wasn’t the only one doing this. “I’m so glad you’re writing about this, I love watching those videos,” one friend texted me, complete with a link to her favorite.Even Anya Shumilina, the Director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in New York City, told me she loved the topic. “I totally do this. It’s very relaxing.”As one of the many people who has never been able to successfully meditate, these videos are the first steps towards what feels like zen. At the end of each video, there’s a finished project. They’re beautiful to watch, and for those moments in which I’m scrolling through my feed, watching cake after cake be iced and sliced, there is calm.
ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, is a tingling sensation on the skin most often used to refer to the videos that elicit that response, which have surged in popularity in the past several years. (Some viewers describe their responses as an experience of low-grade euphoria complete with goosebumpy feelings.) A 2015 study by Swansea University’s department of psychology looked specifically into the relationship between ASMR videos (particularly ones where people whisper in a measured way about basically anything) and relieving anxiety. The study concluded that “ASMR provides temporary relief in mood for those suffering from depression, with many individuals consciously using it for this purpose.” While there doesn’t seem to be a study on cake-icing videos specifically, there is an entire subset of ASMR videos called “ASMR Cake icing.”Hilda Burke, a UK based psychotherapist, says that meditation apps, ASMR videos, or whatever your particular tool might be, have “democratized mindfulness and meditation. Now you have a gateway to exploring those sort of tools. The access is great.” Zoning out into something mindful and mindless at once is as easy as picking up your phone.My personal favorite cake-icing accounts are New York City-based Chelsweets and Brisbane-based KarleesKupcakes. I watch the videos without sound, and relish the way icing is smoothed seamlessly over spongey loaves, how colors mingle and mix, how at the end there is a beautiful dessert. It’s worth noting that I have zero desire to eat them. Cake-icing videos don’t make me hungry, they make me calm.
“Some people have difficulty meditating,” says Shumilina. “It’s challenging to close your eyes and exert a focused effort on controlling your breath, because when you close your eyes—if you’re blessed and cursed with racing and intrusive thought—it’s difficult to bring yourself back to the present moment. When you’re watching a cake video, it’s a very easy way to bring your attention to something other than your thoughts.”“For novices, meditation can seem intimidating and off-putting,” Burke says. “Who can sit down and start from scratch and do five minutes of mindfulness? I encourage clients to start with 90 seconds and work there way up from there, building their capacity as they would if they were weight training. I think there is definitely a benefit to be gained from doing that practice and pushing one's boundaries, but if a client were to say that cake-icing videos helped them to relax in the present then that is a positive thing."As part of my effort to obtain mental healthcare from the NHS in London, where I now live, I attended a four-week Cognitive Behavioral Therapy group on anxiety. It was the first step in a long process that finally ends in being able to see a counselor on a regular basis. The NHS’s resources are stretched thin, and this helps people seeking tools for managing a particular situation with CBT, as opposed to those looking for long-term therapy. The group required homework, though—nightly diaries accompanied by charts and venn diagrams about stress triggers that reminded me of middle school math assignments. I cannot tell you how many of us were delinquent with our work.
For people in treatment, like I am, cake videos can offer a reprieve between CBT classes, an immediate way to manage anxiety (albeit temporarily), and save picking it apart for later. After a day full of stress, instead of sitting down to fill out a flowchart about breaking negative thought cycles, I can sit and watch cakes being iced. It doesn’t mean the stress of the day is resolved, but it does help me cope instead of freaking out.“You see a patient for an hour, and then there is a week in between sessions,” Shumilina says. “There are different ways to try and maintain motivation to practice mindfulness between sessions, but it doesn’t always work. We used to give patients thought logs and trackers. Some people are inherently more motivated to practice their skills and some people need a push. The fact that it’s so easy to watch these videos really helps with skill acquisition, and it helps solidify the strategies that we cover in session.”On the other hand, in an era when we’re all glued to our phone screens, where is the line between cake videos as a helpful tool and an addiction? While access to these videos can be a good thing, Burke also points out the potential slippery slope. “If we’re dependent on an external thing to provide meditation, then what are we really learning? It’s great to get a start, to have something that hand-holds us through it, but after a certain point the training wheels need to come off.”
I reach for my phone, breaking the ‘no screens in bed’ rule (to which my partner and I never adhere), and watch the bakers bake because it’s so easy. But is my go-to for zoning out good for me, or simply a placeholder for the feelings and obligations I need to manage?“Like any addiction,” Shumilina explains, the threshold is “when something becomes detrimental. The benchmark we use is: Does it interfere with quality of life? Is there this urge to use it to the point where you cannot function?” That seems unlikely to happen, though we all know what it’s like to zone out in front of social media for way longer than we intended.She continues, “Cake videos don’t have the immediate pleasant consequence as reinforcement. With drugs, there’s so much going on chemically and physiologically making you feel good. Mindfulness can help regulate chemical imbalance in your brain, but it’s not followed by that rush. If it were, people would be [practicing] mindfulness all the time.” So while binge-watching cake videos might not be the key to long-lasting mental health, it appears to be a stepping stone that’s harmless enough.I ask Karlee, of Karlees Kupcakes, how she feels knowing that people use her videos as a tool for alleviating anxiety.“It is the most humbling and rewarding thing about being who I am on Instagram,” she says. “Everyday people suffer from some sort of anxiety, and I am no exception. Anxiety can strike even those of us who appear like they are successful and have their life together. I actually get quite a few messages and comments from people to say thank you for helping them calm their anxiety by watching my videos. To know I can reach and help someone on such a personal level means the world to me.”Likewise, Chelsey White of Chelsweets says, “I'm happy that people find it relaxing. To me, baking itself is relaxing. It is kind of an escape, where I get to forget about everything else, and just worry about getting my frosting perfectly smoothed, or getting a ganache drip just right. I think it's wonderful that it's relaxing on both sides of the camera.“At the end of each cake-icing video, there’s a finished project that began with chaos. And after zoning into them for a bit, I believe, at least for a little while, that it’s really that easy to turn a messy kitchen, and a scattered brain, into a masterpiece of calm.