Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 5/18/2022
Anxiety is a difficult condition to explain to people, and few aspects of it are more difficult to explain than free floating anxiety, a particular symptom of anxiety disorders.
Anxiety, in general, makes sense to most people — even those who don’t have an anxiety disorder generally feel anxious from time to time, whether it’s during a presentation for work, a public speaking event, or the moments before asking out a crush.
But while many people understand anxiety linked to individual situations, they don’t get the “nothing in particular” kind of anxiety that is free floating anxiety. This makes free floating anxiety even more frustrating than the anxious feeling itself.
If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, you likely know this feeling already, but for people who are new to the anxiety world, or those trying to support loved ones with anxiety, it can be a bit confusing to understand.
Let’s break it down.
According to the American Psychological Association, free floating anxiety is characterized by a diffuse, non-specific, chronic sense of uneasiness with an unspecified source.
This means that instead of the anxiety being directed toward any one thing like spiders, a looming deadline or confrontations with a coworker or family member, it’s a spike in your anxiety levels without any obvious cause.
Free floating anxiety is actually quite common, and is associated with many types of anxiety-related conditions. In particular, the most common form of anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, often leads to free floating anxiety.
For most people, free floating anxiety symptoms are simply standard anxiety symptoms but without an obvious cause. This lack of trigger is what separates free floating anxiety from other types.
General symptoms of anxiety might include:
Feeling edgy or wound up
Chills or hot flashes
Chest pain or pressure
Shortness of breath
Increased heart rate
Diarrhea and other stomach issues
Recurring mental images or memories that cause fear.
These physical symptoms and cognitive symptoms can be caused by a number of anxiety disorder subtypes, from panic disorder to agoraphobia to generalized anxiety disorder, and more specific or limited types of anxiety like social anxiety disorder or phobias.
As you can see, free floating anxiety is somewhat elusive to pin down when it comes to identifying symptoms. The same is true of its causes.
To learn about some unusual symptoms of anxiety check out our blog on weird anxiety symptoms.
One possible explanation of free floating anxiety is that these symptoms were once associated with a particular triggering situation or event, but that cause and the current feelings are no longer associated—like an iceberg breaking free of one of the polar caps, it has become fully detached, and now looms untethered, waiting to cause the cruise liner of your sanity some serious problems.
Anxiety may be brought on by trauma from weeks, months or years ago that is no longer an immediate threat or danger in your life, but nevertheless has created negative thought patterns that continue to recur in your daily life.
For instance, you might have experienced symptoms of anxiety as a child after witnessing or having been abused in your home. Even though you are no longer in an abusive environment, the anxiety symptoms may still linger in your daily life.
The good news is that free floating anxiety often responds to the recommended treatment for anxiety disorders.
These treatments might involve many specific techniques, but we can break them into three major groups: therapy, medication and lifestyle changes.
Therapy for anxiety is a powerful and effective form of treatment. When paired with other treatments, it can yield some of the most effective results for your quality of life and your mental health.
Data suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective forms of therapeutic intervention for anxiety disorders of all kinds.
CBT for anxiety isn’t exactly like the psychotherapy you’ve seen in the movies—it’s a modality of treatment for mood disorders that trains you to recognize patterns of anxious thought, and learn to process them in healthy ways (and not let them invade and take over your brain).
Learning to regulate these unhealthy or anxious thoughts is step one in the process of making their control over you a thing of the past.
There are several different types of anxiety medication or pharmacological therapy, but one of the most used is actually antidepressants.
Antidepressants like SSRIs are considered first-line treatments for anxiety disorders. They work by helping you to manage your brain chemistry and balance the level of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which are associated with mental disorders.
But if SSRIs don’t work for you or if the side effects of these medications negatively affect your quality of life, there are other medications your doctor might recommend, such as benzodiazepines.
There’s no way around this: unhealthy habits can contribute to anxiety, whether it’s excessive drinking, smoking, illicit drug use, or even an unhealthy diet.
Adopting a healthy diet and exercise program (as well as quitting a few of those unhealthy habits) is a profoundly smart life choice in general, but it can also have a positive influence on your mental health and help you reduce symptoms of anxiety, free-floating or otherwise.
If you think you’re experiencing free floating anxiety, it’s probably time to turn to a professional. Self-managing conditions like anxiety can work sometimes, but in most cases, people suffering from anxiety (free floating or otherwise) benefit greatly from professional support, in the form of a healthcare professional and their guidance.
Even if the thought of talking to a mental health professional makes you anxious — the non-free floating kind — it will likely be an effective treatment for anxiety that you can’t get on your own.
If you’re ready to talk to someone, start the conversation today. We hope you’ll consider using our resources for online therapy and treatment, but whether it’s with us or another form of support, do it today — you owe it to yourself.