From Burnout to Balance: Using Nutrition to Cope with Stress as a Behavioral Health Provider

Do you often feel like your days are jam-packed? A full case load paired with demands outside of work can leave you feeling stressed and overwhelmed. We often forget that our food choices impact our overall stress and perhaps more importantly, how our body adapts and recovers from stress.

As a behavioral health clinician, others come to you seeking guidance on how to better take care of themselves, set healthy boundaries, and learn to regulate their emotions. But how do you prioritize caring for yourself when you’re constantly taking care of others? There are many ways your diet can support your mental health. Making changes to your food choices can be simple and powerful!

When thinking about the impact food has on our mental health, I can’t help but think of the famous quote by Hippocrates, “Let food be thy medicine”. Although food can’t solve every ailment, foods do impact mental health! Let’s dive in to 10 easy tips to maximize your nutrition leaving your body and mind nourished!

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10 Ways to Set Yourself Up for Success with Nutrition

1. Break the Fast

We’ve heard this time and time again, breakfast is essential, but why? Breakfast or “breaking the fast” is a signal to our body to jump start our metabolism. Breakfast alerts our body that we are up and ready to roll! Taking time to nourish your body before going into a full day of client sessions sets you up for success by providing the glucose needed to get your brain firing optimally. Simply put, carbohydrates improve mental clarity. No time to eat at a table? No problem! Grab it to go. The bottom line is to give your body nutrition first thing and you’ll find your focus for the day is far improved!

2. Pack a Punch

Packing meals and snacks the evening before or morning of is a great way to ensure you’ve got balanced food options to reduce your stress. Setting time in your schedule to pack meals gives you the chance to think about what you’re going to eat. When you set a dedicated time to think through the “what” you’re more likely to pack balanced options which will keep you physically satisfied, while also improving energy and focus during the day.  Consistent nourishment is crucial for stress management. 

3. Focus on Fat

We’ve all heard about how important protein is for our bodies but what about fat? Fat is an essential macronutrient and without it our bodies aren’t able to absorb key vitamins like Vitamin A, D, E, and K. Low levels of Vitamin D have been linked to multiple mental health conditions, including depression. Additionally, Omega 3 Fatty acids (an important polyunsaturated fat) can contribute to improvements in brain function. Eating foods that contain fat also improve our hunger and fullness regulation, keeping us satisfied longer. So next time you go to plan a meal or snack, make sure you pack some fats!

10 Ways to Set Yourself Up for Success with Nutrition

4. Follow a Schedule

Eating is a basic human need, yet we often overlook it when we’re busy with work. Sometimes that can be our very first sign that we are over stressed and not prioritizing basic self care. Creating a schedule for eating can be helpful, especially when your job requires you to spend multiple hours a day focusing on other peoples’ needs. Plan for 5-10 minute breaks between sessions, allowing you ample time to document and snack on foods that relieve stress! When possible, set a consistent breakfast and dinner time outside of work hours to help remind you of the importance of separating work and home life.

5. Set an Example

When therapeutically appropriate, I find it helpful on busy days to snack or eat a meal with a client. Preferred session times may fall over a common meal or snack time. Eating with your clients not only allows you to set an example but also presents a great opportunity to talk about how food impacts mental health.

6. Hydrate

Did you know that a person can experience reduced cognitive function with mild dehydration? Imagine sitting in a session and struggling to keep focus on what your client is saying to you. The loss of patience and increase in stress may snowball into rising cortisol levels and continued mental strain all stemming from dehydration. Taking time to hydrate is crucial! 

Helpful pro tip: use a water bottle that has a known volume for tracking or bring the majority of your daily hydration needs with you to work so you can see the progress you’re making. 

If you’re unsure what you need, it's simple to calculate! Just divide your weight in pounds by 2 and that is a rough approximation of your daily fluid needs. 

*Note: This calculation does not account for factors such as: extreme heat, medications, medical conditions, etc.

7. Fill Your Cup

Don’t be afraid to get creative when it comes to hydration and snacking. Some days, it’s easier to drink your nutrients and that’s ok! When faced with back-to-back sessions, I make a large smoothie packed with plenty of key nutrients to sip on throughout the day. This ensures that energy needs are met and overall stress is reduced while trying to optimize schedule gaps to get work done when time is tight. You can also rely on ready to drink protein shakes to hydrate and hold you over between meals.

8. Plan to Fail

I cannot stress this enough, planning to fail is key! Even on my “best” days I sometimes forget to prioritize nutrition. When you forget to pack, don’t pack enough, or run out of time to leave the office to eat, hunger progresses. Focus starts to fade, blood sugars start to drop and you’re left feeling like you’re unable to function at your top level. To avoid these situations make it a point to shop at a weekly or biweekly cadence for snack/meal staples specifically for your office. Stock a drawer at your desk with some self-stable essentials so you’re never left not having enough fuel.

9. Cultivate Relaxation

Creating a space that helps you feel more at ease can make a world of difference. If you’re able, create an office space that is relaxing and keeps you comfortable throughout the day. Hang pictures or motivational phrases to help your clients but also, yourself!

10. Down Regulate

At the end of a long day, take time to down regulate. Some days you can’t help but feel stressed, especially if work seeps into life at home. Create an evening routine to calm your central nervous system, reduce cortisol levels (a stress hormone), and improve sleep quality. Try a new nightly routine including: deep breathing, a cup of calming tea, perhaps essential oils to calm your body down before you go to bed. Avoid excessive fluid intake, foods with caffeine, and large meals right before bed; these are known sleep disruptors. Pairing a fiber-filled complex carbohydrate with fat and protein can help improve sleep quality by stabilizing blood sugars before bed. A great example of this is 100% whole wheat bread with peanut butter. Remember, sleeping gives our bodies a chance to fully reboot and bring down our cortisol levels so we want to get quality sleep whenever possible.

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Author Zeina Hamra

About the Author

Zeina is a Registered Dietitian specializing in eating disorders, hormonal imbalances, athletes, and thyroid dysfunction. She has over 15 years of experience working in various healthcare settings and with individuals of all ages.

Zeina received her Bachelor’s Degree in Biology with a concentration in Nutrition from North Carolina State University. She is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS) and a member of the International Association of Eating Disorders (IAEDP) North Carolina chapter.

Zeina truly believes in empowering individuals through education and helping them gain a deeper understanding of their body’s unique needs. She is passionate about dispelling myths and misconceptions about the human body and nutrition.