NHS Lothian

What is generalised anxiety?

2 min read


What is generalised anxiety? 

Most of us know what it’s like to feel worried. But for some people, worry can become excessive, constant and out of proportion to the situations theyre faced with. This is called generalised anxiety. Generalised anxiety can make it very hard to get on with your life and can have a big impact on relationships, health, and life in general. 


What’s it like to have generalised anxiety? 

People who worry a lot usually have many negative thoughts in all sorts of situations and tend to anticipate a “worst-case scenario”.  Here are some of the most common negative thoughts people with generalised anxiety have about themselves, other people, the future and the world:  

Thoughts about yourself 

  • “I can’t handle stress” 
  • I can’t relax” 
  • “Worrying helps me prepare for the worst” 
  • “All this worrying must be bad for me” 

Thoughts about other people 

  • “Other people can cope better than I can 
  • “Why can’t I just be like other people and not worry” 

Thoughts about the future 

  • Something bad will happen” 
  • “I won’t be able to cope” 
  • “This is going to be a disaster” 


Thoughts about the world 

  • The world is threatening” 
  • “Uncertainty is dangerous/intolerable” 


It’s also common to have feelings of dread and physical tension in your body, and to have difficulty relaxing. 

Worrying can also make you look for reassurance from other people, which can feel helpful in the short term. But in the longer term you’ll end up needing reassurance in order to manage your worries, and this will be unhelpful as it will leave you feeling unable to cope independently.  

People with generalised anxiety often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed. As soon as one anxious thought resolves, another pops up about a different issue. They can also find uncertainty very difficult to cope with and tend to underestimate how well they can cope in future situations.  



What causes generalised anxiety? 

The exact cause of generalised anxiety is not fully understood, but it’s likely that a combination of several factors plays a role. 

Research suggests that your genes can be one influence. You’re estimated to be 5 times more likely to develop generalised anxiety if you have a close relative with this problem. Generalised anxiety can also be linked to stressful experiences throughout life, such as abuse or bullying. People with a history of drug or alcohol misuse are more likely to develop generalised anxiety and it’s also more prevalent in people with long-term or painful health conditions. But many people develop generalised anxiety for no apparent reason. 


How common is generalised anxiety? 

Generalised anxiety is a common condition, estimated to affect up to 5% of the UK population. 

Women are slightly more affected than men and the problem is more common in people aged between 35 and 59. 



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