Managing Stress in a Mindful Way

Taking care of your mind and body can go a long way to a healthy life in the kitchen.
Taking care of your mind and body can go a long way to a healthy life in the kitchen. thinkstock

How about expanding the premise of mise en place to everyday life? That’s a practice we suggest to our students at The Culinary Institute of America when teaching them how to cope with the rigors and stresses of the invigorating, and often demanding, restaurant industry.

The French term, which translates to “putting in place” and is typically attached to preparation and setup, is a well-known cornerstone for success in any kitchen. But it can also apply outside of the classroom. How students manage their daily lives can go a long way when it comes to handling hectic professional challenges.

It can be something as simple as defining their individual nutritional needs, or organizing the physical environments in their dorm rooms and cars. Those kinds of lifestyle practices set the foundation for success.

But before the process of dealing with stress can truly begin, it’s crucial for each student to be aware of his own mind and body. There’s a unique expectation for both patience and urgency in this industry that can be overwhelming. And as simple as it sounds, learning to identify stress—before and as it’s happening—is a very powerful tool. Restaurants can be frantic environments. More often than not, kitchens are hot and uncomfortable, workers are always on their feet, and the pace is very rapid.

When challenges begin to feel paralyzing, it helps kitchen staff to recognize there’s always a choice—whether it’s slowing down the thought process or literally slowing down. This also can help avoid mistakes or, when mistakes happen, aid in finding ways to quickly remedy and recover from them in a timely and professional manner.

Here at the CIA, all freshmen take a “Professionalism and Life Skills” course that addresses these issues. Meditation, which is brought up often and even practiced in the classroom, is one of the best coping strategies. With practice and refinement, meditation can be a potent device capable of helping out in any situation.

Regular exercise and physical activity can also help relieve stress during off-hours. We check in not only with students, but also with CIA faculty and staff, to see how they’re faring with day-to-day hardships.

Another strategy that can easily be overlooked is breathing. It’s something we do all day, every day, and doesn’t necessarily receive the kudos it deserves. It sounds like common sense, but breathing is one of the best mechanisms we have to ward off stress.

Normally, we don’t even think about how we are breathing, but often times in stressful situations, people will hold their breath or their breathing will become irregular. And breathing is one very important anchor that each one of us can be aware of and focus on.

In the end, dealing with stress and psychological health comes down to the right mentality. We’re very good at ignoring what might really be going on inside our physical or mental self. Making that connection and being in the moment is hard and takes a lot of practice.

At the CIA, prospective students are required to participate in a six-month work experience program. It’s an opportunity to understand the reality of the industry. Ours is an incredibly invigorating, innovative, and wonderful industry, but it also comes with a lot of demands. Finding ways to juggle and channel those pressures and feelings into productive practices can make all the difference for a healthy and successful culinary career.

Dr. Kathy Merget is the associate vice president and dean of student affairs at The Culinary Institute of America. Before assuming her current role in 2015, Dr. Merget was the college’s dean of liberal arts and business management. She earned a PhD and master’s degrees in Applied Developmental Psychology and spent 15 years in private practice as a psychologist.

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