What Is Free Floating Anxiety?
Free-floating anxiety refers to experiencing worry or panic without a known trigger. Sometimes this anxiety ebbs and flows over the course of time. In other cases, this anxiety is persistent, and it may be characteristic of other anxiety disorders, like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Anxiety is a normal, universal emotion that we all experience. It often results from a combination of fear and helplessness. For example, you might feel anxious about an upcoming test if you’re concerned about passing a class. Or, you might feel panicked if a loved one calls you in the middle of the night, as your mind may automatically assume something bad has happened.
Free Floating Anxiety vs. GAD
Generalized anxiety disorder affects over 3% of the population While many symptoms of free-floating anxiety and GAD intersect, there are some key differences. To meet the criteria for GAD, an individual must experience persistent worry for at least six months. There is no specific time limit for free-floating anxiety. Furthermore, the anxiety needs to cause clinical distress, meaning it affects other areas of
People with GAD often experience difficulties in work, school, or interpersonal relationships. They may also suffer from various health consequences. Free-floating anxiety is often a primary symptom of GAD. However, the presence of free-floating anxiety alone does not necessarily signify a mental health condition.
Symptoms of Free-Floating Anxiety
Free-floating anxiety can feel different for everyone, but most people experience some form of worry, discomfort, and stress. These feelings do not have an obvious source, and they can emerge at any time. Additionally, they range in intensity. Anyone can experience free-floating anxiety, but it may be more common among people with anxiety disorders.
Symptoms of free-floating anxiety include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased heart rate
- Racing thoughts
- Muscle tightness
- Negative thoughts
What Causes Free-Floating Anxiety?
It’s impossible to pinpoint the specific causes of free-floating anxiety. Anxiety, after all, is a normal response, and this symptom likely emerges from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Certain risk factors may increase one’s vulnerability to anxiety. Furthermore, anxiety often accompanies other mental health conditions like depression or substance use disorders.
Researchers continue to examine how neurobiology impacts mental health. Some studies suggest that heightened activity in the limbic system (which includes the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and amygdala) may correlate with increased anxiety.2 Trauma can impact the limbic system and affect this stress response.
Anxiety can run in families, and some research suggests that children are seven times more likely to develop an anxiety disorder if one of their parents has one.3 This isn’t to suggest that family members directly cause anxiety. However, it can insinuate that mental health symptoms can persist through generational transmission.
Certain life experiences can exacerbate anxiety. For example, undergoing a trauma may result in you feeling more anxious or afraid. As a result, you may feel more cautious about your environment and become hypervigilant when faced with stress.
From a young age, children need autonomy and encouragement to talk
and encouragement to take healthy risks.4 But if a parent is overly anxious about their child’s well-being, they may pass along that excess worry and fear. This transmission can leave them feeling doubtful and skeptical of themselves and their environment.
9 Ways to Cope With Free-Floating Anxiety
While it may not be possible to eliminate all anxiety, you can learn how to manage your worry. Of course, doing so requires effort and intention. That said, developing and implementing positive coping skills allows you to feel more empowered. It can also create a sense of positive reinforcement—the more you practice these tips, the more second-nature they become.
Nine good ways to cope with free-floating anxiety include:
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness allows you to focus on the present moment and move away from obsessing over the future. You can practice mindfulness by integrating a dedicated meditation practice or simply concentrating on your breath when you feel overwhelmed.
- Yoga: Research shows that yoga can improve anxiety symptom Consider signing up for a regular class or practicing a few poses at home each day.
- Spending time in nature: Nature helps us feel calmer and happier. Commit to spending more time outside, even if it’s just for eating a meal or answering emails.
- Reaching out for positive support: Anxiety can fester in isolation. Make an effort to reach out to loved ones often and focus on spending time with people who make you feel safe and supported.
- Reflecting on your gratitude: Gratitude can help you keep the big picture in perspective. The next time you feel anxious, try to reflect on all the positive things you have in your life.
- Exercise: Commit to making regular physical activity an ongoing habit. Find an exercise that you enjoy doing and make it a non-negotiable part of your routine.
- Accepting the emotion: Sometimes, we just need to accept that anxiety happens. By labeling and identifying the feeling for what it is, you might find that it no longer feels as powerful.
- Planning a scheduled worry time: Although it may seem paradoxical, it can be helpful to arrange a specific “worry time.” Using this cognitive strategy, aim to commit to only allowing yourself to focus on your worries during this particular window.
- Sticking to a routine: Consistency can help you feel focused, even if things feel out of control. Aim to create a morning and evening ritual to implement each day.
Treatments to Reduce Free-Floating Anxiety
Although anxiety can be frustrating, it is treatable. In some cases, increasing self-care, changing certain lifestyle habits, or practicing healthy coping skills will make a significant difference. However, if your anxiety isn’t improving, or if it continues to worsen, seeking professional treatment can help you regain a sense of control over your life.
Therapy can help you understand your anxiety better. Your therapist may work with you to discover different triggers and patterns. This insight can open new pathways for coping and healing. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) tends to be the most common approach. Other well-known models include
psychodynamic therapy, solution-focused therapy, and narrative therapy.
When starting your search, it’s crucial to choose a therapist with experience in treating anxiety. In addition, if you believe you have other co-occurring mental health issues, like trauma, disordered eating, or depression, ask if they have expertise in those issues as well. Use this professional directory to narrow down viable options.
Medication can reduce the intensity of anxiety symptoms, especially when it’s coupled with therapy and other behavioral changes. Keep in mind that only a qualified medical doctor, psychiatrist, or some licensed psychologists may prescribe psychiatric medication.
Final Thoughts on Free-Floating Anxiety
Any level of anxiety can feel distressing. With that in mind, you don’t need to wait for things to feel completely unbearable before doing something about it. Reaching out to a trusted friend or connecting with a therapist can make a tremendous difference in how you feel.