What Is Free-Floating Anxiety?

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What Is Free-Floating Anxiety?

Free-floating anxiety is a general sense of uneasiness that is not tied to any particular object or specific situation. The term is often used to describe feelings of discomfort, nervousness, worry, and anxiety that appear for seemingly no reason.

It often occurs with generalized anxiety disorder, but it may also be present with other types of anxiety conditions.

It is important to note that free-floating anxiety is not a distinct mental disorder recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5). Instead, it is a term used to describe the non-specific feelings of anxiety that people sometimes experience from time to time as well as with conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder.

Symptoms

Free-floating anxiety is characterized by feelings of:

  • Anxiety
  • Concern
  • Discomfort
  • Dread
  • Fear
  • Jitters
  • Misgiving
  • Nervousness
  • Panic
  • Unease
  • Restlessness
  • Stress
  • Worry

It is important to note that these feelings may come and go and do not have an easily apparent source. This type of anxiety is most commonly associated with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is characterized by persistent and excessive anxiety about a wide variety of things. Other common symptoms of GAD include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Excessive, frequent worries about everyday things
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep disruptions

Diagnosis

If you are experiencing free-floating anxiety, your doctor may start by conducting a physical exam and performing lab tests to help rule out any medical conditions that might be contributing to your symptoms.

Diabetes, hyperthyroidism, asthma, chronic pain, and substance use disorders are just a few examples of conditions that may play a role in causing anxiety.

Next, your doctor will ask questions about the symptoms you are experiencing, including the nature of the symptoms as well as their frequency, duration, and severity.

Based on your medical history and symptoms, your doctor may then diagnose you with an anxiety disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, or a specific phobia.

Causes

The exact causes of the free-floating anxiety that occurs in generalized anxiety disorder are not known. However, a number of different factors are thought to contribute to this condition including:

  • Brain chemistry: People who experience anxiety may have differences in their brain structure or systems that contribute to the experience of free-floating anxiety. Neurotransmitter systems related to serotonin as well as a structure called the amygdala are both thought to contribute to feelings of anxiety.
  • Genetics: People who have generalized anxiety disorder are more likely to have close family members with anxiety or other mental disorders.
  • Experiences: Negative or traumatic experiences can also play a role in making people feel anxious, fearful, and worried.
  • Upbringing: Children raised with parents or caregivers who modeled anxious responses may also be more likely to experience elevated levels of anxiety later during adulthood.

Approximately 2.7% of adults in the U.S. experienced generalized anxiety disorder in the past year. The condition also tends to be twice as common in women as it is in men.

Impact of Free-Floating Anxiety

Free-floating anxiety can have a number of different effects on a person’s life. All of that worrying can raise a person’s stress levels, which can have a serious impact on overall health. It may make it more difficult to get a restful night's sleep, which can leave people with feelings of daytime tiredness and fatigue. 

Because people with free-floating anxiety spend so much time preoccupied with these general feelings of unease and worry, they have a more difficult time enjoying their lives and experience lower levels of overall life satisfaction and happiness.

Feelings of anxiety can also contribute to other problems including depression, headaches, social withdrawal, substance misuse, relationship problems, and even thoughts of suicide.

Treatment

Fortunately, there are treatments for anxiety that can be very effective. If your symptoms are interfering with your ability to function normally and are causing significant distress, talk to your doctor. Some of the treatments that your doctor may recommend are listed below.

Psychotherapy

One approach known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective treatments for generalized anxiety disorder.

CBT focuses on helping people identify the automatic negative thought patterns that contribute to feelings of anxiety. Once they learn to recognize these thoughts, people can then work to replace those patterns with more helpful ones.

Medications

Your doctor may also prescribe medications to help you manage your feelings of anxiety.

Selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), a type of antidepressant, are sometimes prescribed to relieve anxiety.

An anti-anxiety medication called BuSpar (buspirone) may also be prescribed. Benzodiazepines may sometimes be used on a short-term basis to relieve feelings of acute anxiety.

Coping

While free-floating anxiety can be a sign of a mental health condition such as generalized anxiety disorder, it can also be something that people experience from time to time without having an actual anxiety disorder.

Whether your anxiety is more persistent or if it comes and goes, there are things that you can do to better cope with these feelings.

Some things you can do include:

  • Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms: Turning to alcohol or other substances may help in the short-term, but will often create worse problems in the long-term.
  • Eat a healthy diet: Some research suggests that nutrition may play a role in anxiety, so eating a healthy diet may help you feel better.
  • Exercise: Studies have shown that staying physically active can be important for reducing symptoms of anxiety. Research suggests that exercise can be an effective way to release tension and reduce feelings of worry and anxiety.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Findings ways to lower your anxiety levels can make it easier to cope with worry and stress. Strategies such as meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing, and visualization may help take your mind off your worries and lower your overall stress levels.
  • Stop smoking and limit caffeine: Caffeine and nicotine can exacerbate feelings of anxiety, so limiting these substances may be helpful.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments, such as St. John's wort, are sometimes used to treat anxiety. Some of these supplements may have serious risks, so you should always talk to your doctor before you try any supplement or alternative treatment.

For example, St. John’s wort has the potential to cause serotonin syndrome when combined with some antidepressants.

A Word From Verywell

Free-floating anxiety can be distressing and may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. If you are having feelings of unease and worry that don’t seem to have a specific cause, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. 

Anxiety often grows worse over time and may eventually lead to avoidance behaviors that can interfere with your life and ability to function. Effective treatments are available, including online therapy options that may allow you to learn how to manage your anxiety using convenient apps, websites, and other online tools. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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