Like many women, whenever I feel stressed, frustrated, cranky, or restless, I head straight for the kitchen. Rummaging through the fridge and the cabinets, I've got just one thing on my mind: What looks good? But I'm not searching for something to eat. I'm looking for something to cook.

For me, cooking isn't a chore but an emotional outlet. When I was 8, I discovered it was the perfect cure for boredom. Stuck inside the house for a week with the chicken pox, I was driving my mother nuts. In desperation she pulled out an Easy-Bake Oven she'd been saving for my birthday and told me to make something. I decided on chocolate cake. Never mind that I got salt and sugar mixed up and flubbed my first culinary attempt--it was fun and completely absorbing. Soon I graduated to grown-up recipes like piecrust and meatballs.

Cooking became my hobby, yes, but over the years I've come to rely on it to help bring calm to my crazy life. I'm too impatient to meditate, and I use my treadmill time to make my to-do lists, so those traditional stress relievers don't work for me. But like gardening, cooking can give you a Zen-like focus. It engages all the senses: taste, obviously, but also sight, smell, touch, even hearing. (You can actually listen for the right time to turn a pork chop--you wait for the sizzle to slow down.) I may enter my kitchen feeling tense from my hour-long commute or worried about Mom's doctor's visit. But as I start to chop, stir, and saute, my pulse slows and my head clears. I'm totally in the moment, and within 30 minutes I have not only a healthy and tasty dinner but a new outlook.

Equally rewarding is the creativity cooking can spark. A few years ago I was at a friend's house for Thanksgiving, and she served these delicious semolina rolls with raisins and fennel seeds she'd bought at a bakery. The next day I found a recipe for semolina bread, adjusted it a bit, and developed my own recipe for raisin-fennel rolls. I was so proud of myself, and I've served them every holiday since.

Of course not all my experiments have been successful--the Easy-Bake cake was far from my last mishap. But I keep trying. Cooking has helped me take errors in stride instead of being deterred by them. After all, even the masters have messed up. I've just finished reading Julia Child's memoir, My Life in France. She tells how when she was learning to cook, she served a friend "the most vile eggs Florentine" for lunch. Yet she still ends her book with this advice: "Learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and, above all, have fun!" Now that's a motto for life in and out of the kitchen.