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Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Give Your Brain a Break: Managing Stress and Anxiety

Posted By: Advancing Care

Everyone deals with stress from time to time, and it can look different for every person — like feeling nervous before an important exam or overwhelmed with too many tasks at work. But how do you know if what you’re experiencing is stress or anxiety? And when is the right time to seek help? We spoke with WMCHealth child and adolescent psychiatrist Steven Dickstein, MD, to get some answers to our most pressing questions about stress and anxiety.

Everyone gets stressed and anxious from time to time. Here are the differences between stress and anxiety, and how to best manage these feelings when you experience them.

What are the main differences between stress and anxiety?

Dr. Dickstein: Stress usually implies that you’re facing something you’re not sure you can overcome. We all face stress sometimes with situations like deadlines or the many tasks parents face taking care of children. Stress can also be healthy at times, motivating us to be alert and perform at our best. Anxiety, on the other hand, is associated with worry or fear that something bad will happen. It isn’t necessarily pathological or out of proportion to feel this way, but if it’s interfering with normal functioning in your daily life, you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder.

How do stress and anxiety affect your physical body?

Dr. Dickstein: Most commonly, your sympathetic nervous system will respond to stress or anxiety. This is the system that gives us the fight, flight or freeze responses, where you might experience a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, fast breathing, hyperventilating, shakiness or muscle tension. Chronic severe stress may also affect your immune system, which may make you more susceptible to infections.

Stephen Dickstein, MD
Steven Dickstein, MD

When should someone seek treatment for stress or anxiety?

Dr. Dickstein: If your anxiety is starting to interfere with normal, everyday functioning, it may be a sign that you should talk to someone. In addition, if you find yourself relieving your stress in unhealthy ways, like using substances, it’s the right time to seek help. You can start off by discussing your concerns with your primary care provider, who can guide you in the right direction. If left untreated, anxiety can worsen and increase the risk of other serious issues such as isolation, depression, substance abuse and even suicidal thoughts.

What are some healthy ways to deal with stress and anxiety?

Dr. Dickstein: One important first step is to learn to describe your fears and label your feelings as stress or anxiety. It can be quite helpful to acknowledge your feelings instead of trying to ignore them. Exercise, getting support from trusted people and meditation are all good ways to deal with stress. Facing your fears is hard to do, but very important in getting control of them, and just using avoidance as a coping strategy will likely make them worse. If you find yourself unable to overcome stress and anxiety with lifestyle modifications, talking to a therapist or exploring medications with a doctor can be very helpful. Know that anxiety disorders are some of the most common psychological conditions at any age. You are not alone in these feelings and there are many effective treatments.

If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, visit your nearest emergency department. WMCHealth is one of New York State's largest providers of mental health care and offers emergency mental health services at member hospitals throughout the Hudson Valley.

Learn more about WMCHealth’s Behavioral Health Center.