Nutrition can play a big role in both the development of anxiety symptoms as well as their management.
I think the importance of nutrition is greatly underestimated by a lot of people who live with anxiety disorders, so today I want to share with you my favorite nutritional anxiety tool: protein; more specifically – grilled chicken breast.
What is so great about chicken breast?
It is an easy to prepare (just have a look at this chicken breast instant pot recipe), healthy, filling, lower fat (depending on whether you eat it with or without skin) way to ease your hunger and keep your blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. Stable blood sugars give you a greater shot of having a stable mood, and stable moods make it much easier to cope with the symptoms of anxiety.
For those of us with anxiety disorders, hunger and blood sugar dips can be the equivalent of a grenade being thrown at our “wall of resilience” .
Dramatic feelings can intensify, things seem much worse than they actually are, and we sometimes can’t seem to get control over our feelings. Our feelings seem to be controlling us and this often leads to panic attacks, crying episodes, or anger outbursts that occur while others in the room are looking at us like they have no idea what is going on.
The truth is, that quite often, those of us that are going through these “episodes” don’t know what is going on either!
It might be helpful for you to know that a lot of us with anxiety disorders are what are known as “Highly Sensitive People(Person)” or HSP’s.
Not only are our personalities more sensitive than most, but our nervous systems are more sensitive as well. Many of us seem to have stronger reactions than the “average” person to stress, change, hunger, caffeine, lack of sleep, blood sugar fluctuations, hormones, etc.
Complicating matters is that when we are going through a chronic, bad anxiety cycle, we produce a lot of adrenaline and other stress hormones and after some period of time, we can find ourselves in an “overly sensitized” state in which we have even stronger reactions to those things I just mentioned.
When somebody in an overly sensitized state finds themselves having not eaten, or having not eaten the right type of healthy foods for several hours, it can create some awful symptoms such as:
A “Hollow” Feeling
Feelings of Dread
The person may not be in the middle of a true medical crisis or be technically considered to be in a “hypoglycemic state” but due to their new overly sensitized condition, this is the kind of reaction they are now experiencing to their hunger and/or lower blood sugar levels.
I think I can speak for all of the sensitive people of the world who have ever been in an overly sensitized state and say that its not fun. Every day seems to be a roller coaster of highs and lows, and it is exhausting.
I spent many months unaware of the relationship between blood sugar, hunger, and anxiety symptoms until a nurse practitioner friend of mine informed me about it and recommended that I make sure to never go longer than 3-4 hours without eating during waking hours and to make sure my meals consisted of a lot of protein and no bad or “junk” carbs.
She said this was to keep my appetite sated and to keep my blood sugar levels nice and even throughout the day. In between meals, when I would start to feel the symptoms of strong anxiety and panic coming on, she said I should eat some protein to see if it would help. She said that even if hunger or my sugar levels weren’t technically low, or to blame for my symptoms of anxiety at that time, it’s always easier to mentally manage anxiety when your blood sugar levels are optimum, leaving your wall of resilience nice and strong.
That advice changed my life.
I noticed a big improvement in my anxiety symptoms after making sure to eat healthy, protein filled meals on a regular basis and to snack on protein when I started feeling panicky, anxious or shaky throughout the day. Hard boiled eggs, low sugar peanut butter, and high fiber bread were choices I made often, but mostly, I went with chicken breast – and still do.
Chicken breast works some kind of miracle on both my blood sugar and hunger related anxiety symptoms as well as my overall mood. Within 15 minutes of eating it, I can go from a shaky, anxious, irrational, crabby beast to Snow White. Its that dramatic.
Now, keep in mind here that I have also noticed that eating greasy foods like pizza also does wonders for my mood and my ability to cope. Unhealthy grease is apparently like massage oil to my brain and stomach because it puts me in the BEST mood and I feel NO anxiety. I am actually in a good mood after I eat pizza or fried foods which is unheard of for me.
But let’s be real.
All magic comes with a price and I cannot make grease my go-to choice to help me get through the day with as little anxiety as possible. That is a bad idea on so many levels. The effects on my arteries and waistline would be bad enough, but on top of that, these kinds of meals tend to give me a “food hangover” that takes me at least a full day to recover from, especially if the greasy meals were high in sugar and/or carbs – I’m in a terrible mood and bloated and it’s just no fun at all. So I choose skinless chicken breast because its easy, its delicious and there are so many different ways to make it. You can leave the skin on every now and then, to give yourself a little treat or at those times when you really feel like your mood could use the extra help. Every now and then I have a day where I just feel like my body is low on fat and when I get that way I allow myself a little bit of a “cheat”.
It’s all about moderation and listening to your body and your moods.
Of course chicken doesn’t always take my anxiety symptoms away because my anxiety isn’t always related to my hunger.
(One thing I have learned during my years of self discovery is that not only am I not the people pleaser I have been portraying myself as for most of my life…I am actually kind of a naturally moody grump.)
But thank goodness I found out that sometimes my anxiety IS related to my food intake – because there is such an easy fix for it.
*This is why I always recommend that anybody with ongoing anxiety symptoms speaks to a medical professional to discuss whether there is a logical medical explanation for any of your symptoms and/or to learn things that you can do to help yourself through diet or other easy, natural means. You have the potential to save yourself from a lot of unnecessary discomfort by doing so.
20 years later, despite the fact that I am no longer in an overly sensitized state and I don’t have the panicky reaction to low blood sugar that I used to have, I still eat chicken breast every single day to keep my mood stable and take care of my “hanger.” Dark meat chicken, beef , and pork don’t affect me as well for some reason, so I just stick with the chicken breast – and I don’t even want to think of my life without it. Its serious enough that my husband will run to Kroger at midnight if I see that I am out of chicken breast for the next day. He fears me without my bird.
Chicken is not the ONLY thing I eat, of course. I make sure I eat a varied diet of protein, fruits, vegetables and complex carbs; but I do eat chicken almost every day. This means that yes I do get bored with it sometimes, but when that happens I just look for new recipes and I always find a way to make it fun again .
Split chicken breasts are super easy to bake in the oven and require very little seasoning to taste delicious. And most grocery stores carry the pre-cooked frozen chicken fillets that you just pop in the microwave for a couple of minutes and they are ready to eat. I’ve had a few people ask what Microwave I use – and to that I respond an under cabinet microwave of course. They’re super simple to use, mess-free and great for cooking chicken breasts. With that said, both options are healthy, great as part of a meal or a mid-day snack, and they are also really good to just pull out of the fridge and eat cold when you start feeling panic symptoms and need that protein boost.
I really recommend that you skip the junk carbs when eating your chicken or whatever protein source it is you happen to choose.
Leave the white pasta, white rice and white bread alone, and no sugary sodas or juices to go with it. Junk carbs can wreak havoc on your blood sugar levels and ultimately leave you feeling worse than when you started – especially when you are overly sensitized. In addition, they do not keep help you feel satisfied for long, if at all so you will keep your self in a perpetual state of crabby hunger all the time. It is no exaggeration that when you are in a bad anxiety cycle, whether chronic or acute – junk carbs are NOT your friend!
If you want your meals/snacks to hold you over for a good long while, you want a mix of high protein, complex carbs, a little bit of healthy fat and some fiber. When I am snacking, I usually eat my chicken on its own or with a piece of high fiber nutty bread. For meals, I sometimes eat it with steamed broccoli with low-fat dressing, some red potatoes and maybe some oatmeal sprinkled with cinnamon for dessert. It is a healthy meal that really makes you feel full and leaves you with a nice strong “wall of resilience”.
Don’t underestimate the power of protein, readers!
I say all the time that protein is an anxious person’s best friend – especially good, lean, white meat protein. Pick up some chicken breast at the store and pre-cook it and keep it in the fridge. Next time you are feeling “hangry”, anxious, shaky, or weak, take it out and see if it doesn’t help decrease your symptoms and have you feeling more in control.
Don’t eat meat? Here are some other protein choices for you.
Always contact your physician if you experience fainting, light-headedness or weakness that feels out of the ordinary or extreme.
Just do the best you can every day – and no worries.