Many people living in cities experience some kind of stress and/or anxiety. Stress and anxiety share many similar characteristics, sometimes making it difficult to spot the differences between the two. Both can lead to sleepless nights, exhaustion, excessive worry, lack of focus, and irritability.

However, stress is generally shorter term and less severe as compared to anxiety. Stress can be either positive or negative (in other words, there are healthy or unhealthy amounts of stress). When stress kicks in and helps us pull off that deadline we thought was a lost cause, it’s a healthy amount of stress. Some people need some stress in order to motivate them to take action! However when stress results in insomnia, poor concentration or impaired ability to do the things we normally do, it’s gone overboard and has become unhealthy.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a sustained mental health disorder that can be triggered by stress. It is what happens when we are worried, tense or afraid – especially about things which are about to happen, or that we think could happen in the future. Anxiety is what we feel when we perceive that we are under threat, except that it doesn’t fade into the background once the threat has gone away. Anxiety generally hangs around for a longer period of time, and can cause significant impairment in our social and work relationships as well as other important areas of our lives.

When is anxiety a problem?

Most people feel anxious at times. It’s usual to experience anxiety while coping with stressful events, especially if they could have a big impact on your life. Anxiety can become a mental health problem if it impacts on our ability to fully live our lives. For example, if:

  • The feelings of anxiety are very strong or last for a long time, and feel distressing or hard to control
  • Our fears or worries are out of proportion to the situation at hand
  • We find it hard to go about our everyday lives or do things we enjoy, as we actively avoid situations that might cause us to feel anxious
  • We experience panic attacks

‘You know that feeling you get in your chest when you’re balancing on the back legs of your chair and all of a sudden for just a split second you think you’re about to fall? Imagine that split second feeling frozen in time and lodged in your chest for, say, minutes hours or days, and imagine with it a sense of impending doom and dread too, but sometimes you don’t even know what it’s about. That’s what having a panic attack is like.’

Heart FM DJ Matt Wilkinson on his experience of anxiety and panic attacks