How To Cope With Free-Floating Anxiety

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 17, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Non-specific feelings of tension and a chronic sense of nervousness that seems to come and go for no reason are sometimes referred to as free-floating anxiety. This type of anxiety can be a common symptom of generalized anxiety disorder. Recognizing symptoms as they’re happening, learning about the causes of free-floating anxiety, checking your self-talk, and putting a positive spin on negative thoughts can be helpful. Thinking realistically, avoiding reading too much into your anxiety symptoms and taking care of your body can alleviate anxiety as well. Getting help from a licensed mental health professional via traditional or online therapy can be another helpful method of working through anxiety. 

Finding out why you experience free-floating anxiety

If you have a general sense of anxiety with no apparent cause, a good first step can be to see a doctor for a full physical check-up. You can talk to your doctor or primary care provider about your anxious feelings. 

Through a thorough check-up, your doctor may be able to determine whether there’s a possibility that the excessive anxiety you’re experiencing could be due to an underlying physical or mental health condition. 

Understanding generalized anxiety disorder

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Experience relief from free-floating anxiety

Free-floating anxiety can be a symptom of many different types of anxiety, but it’s typically common for people who have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).  Symptoms of GAD can include:

  • Excessive worries
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Feeling on edge
  • Headaches
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Nausea
  • Tiredness
  • Sleep problems
  • Being easily startled

Free-floating anxiety can also involve physical stress. Physical symptoms can include muscle tension, sweating, and raised heart rate.

It can be important to note that free-floating anxiety is often different from other anxiety conditions, like panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

When you have generalized anxiety disorder, you might have unrealistic thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and views regarding problems or situations in your life or the world in general. You might automatically assume the worst anytime you’re unsure of what might happen next. 

If you have generalized anxiety disorder, you may find yourself dwelling on negative thoughts, distressing events, or upsetting conversations and interactions.

Consult a licensed mental health professional

To determine whether you have generalized anxiety disorder or any mental health disorder, talking to a licensed mental health provider (or first to your primary healthcare provider) can be an important step on the path to healing. Licensed mental health professionals are generally trained and qualified to make an anxiety diagnosis. They may ask you about your medical, family, and mental health history. 

You may discuss your experiences, your symptoms, and how your thought patterns have affected your life. Speaking openly and honestly with your healthcare provider can help you get the best care. If your doctor or licensed mental health professional diagnoses you with generalized anxiety disorder, you might experience a sense of relief. You may discover that your concern has a name and that there are very effective treatments for managing it.

Recognize symptoms when they happen

Because free-floating anxiety can seem to come out of nowhere, it can be helpful to learn to recognize that what you’re experiencing may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder. It can be natural to try to find an explanation for uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. You might find yourself wondering if something disastrous is about to happen, for example. 

But just knowing that anxiety can be a symptom of a mental health disorder - and is not likely to be a sign that something disastrous will happen - can help you avoid jumping to negative or upsetting conclusions.

Learn about the potential causes of generalized anxiety disorder

A way to look at why you have free-floating anxiety can be to consider the causes of generalized anxiety disorder. 

Family history

In one study, people with generalized anxiety disorder and people who didn’t have an anxiety disorder were interviewed to learn about their family histories. The research suggests that people with generalized anxiety disorder tended to be more likely to have family members who also lived with anxiety, which may suggest a genetic component to anxiety

Sometimes, the home environment in which you were raised can play a part in anxiety disorders. For instance, if parents have a certain parenting style or show signs of being fearful, anxious, or avoidant when faced with a threat, children raised in such an environment might tend to do the same. Similarly, if parents have a low tolerance for uncertainty, children might learn to react the same way.

Brain structure

Another cause could be brain structure. If you have generalized anxiety disorder, some nerve cell pathways that connect the areas of your brain associated with thinking and emotions may not be functioning optimally. Peer-reviewed studies have noted that people with generalized anxiety disorder often have problems controlling the neurotransmitter systems that can be key to having a calmer mood.

Environmental factors

Personal experiences and environmental factors, like traumatic events, significant losses, or abrupt changes, can also contribute to generalized anxiety disorder.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Tips for managing free-floating anxiety

Check your self-talk

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When you have generalized anxiety disorder, negative self-talk can increase your symptoms of anxiety. If you believe you may be experiencing free-floating anxiety, improving the way you talk to yourself can be helpful. One step you can take to manage your self-talk may be to pay attention to your thoughts and notice any unnecessary negative thinking patterns. 

Thinking or saying negative things about yourself is usually unhelpful, especially because it can make you seem unequipped to handle and cope with the things you fear. 

To improve your mood when you have generalized anxiety disorder, one thing you can do is use kind self-talk. In general, you might try to avoid saying anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone you love. Consciously focusing on your strengths rather than your weaknesses may improve your outlook and help you recognize that you are strong and can cope with what comes your way.

Notice negative thoughts

If you live with anxiety, you might have negative thoughts that are reality-based, but dwelling on them may not be helpful. There are often sad and distressing occurrences in life. However, many people with generalized anxiety disorder have negative, inaccurate thoughts based on faulty or exaggerated assumptions.

For example, a person might dwell on a time they got stuck in an elevator, or even just heard about someone else getting stuck in an elevator. Perhaps they feel especially anxious about the experience at a time when they need to use an elevator. While they may have gotten stuck one time or heard of someone who did, it may not be helpful to dwell on it at that moment. 

As they wait for the elevator to come, their stress levels might intensify, which may not be productive, and will generally do nothing to change the outcome of the elevator ride. In such cases, identifying that you have a negative or unproductive thought that’s spiraling and causing you distress can be a good step in helping yourself control your thoughts.

Noticing these negative thoughts and understanding that not all negative thoughts may be true or helpful can empower you to cope with the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. It can be possible to be self-aware and learn to exercise more control over your thoughts.

Put a positive spin on your thoughts 

Making a point to look for the good in situations may ease anxiety. For example, if you feel anxious about going to a social event, you might try to find the positives in going. If your mind begins to wander and you start to experience excessive worrying about what you’ll say, who will be there, or how you’ll feel, you might try listing positives such as the following:

  • Will you see someone you enjoy spending time with? 
  • Will there be food or entertainment that you’d like to experience? 
  • Will getting out of the house give you a good break from your routine? 
  • Will you gain a sense of accomplishment from facing this challenge?  

Trying to find the good instead of the bad may help you feel less anxious.

Think realistically and look at the facts

Some negative thoughts may have an element of truth in them, but are so exaggerated that they can provoke anxiety symptoms. Instead of worrying about what could happen, you might try looking at what is most likely to happen. 

For example, if the weather is stormy, you might be very worried that you will get caught in a tornado, even if the storms are supposed to be mild. While your thought that the weather is stormy may be true, your worry or fear that a tornado is coming might be out of proportion to what’s happening. 

In other words, there is probably a much greater likelihood that you will be safe than that something harmful will happen. And what if, on the off chance, something more severe did happen? There is a great likelihood that you would be able to cope with it. Thinking positively and focusing on your strengths and what is realistic can help you manage anxiety.

Don’t read too much into your anxiety symptoms

If you have free-floating anxiety, you might worry about what’s causing it. It can be natural to try to make sense of the discomfort you’re having. However, trying to make sense of the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can be a fruitless exercise in some cases. 

If the anxiety is coming and going for no apparent reason, it can be helpful to remember that these are just symptoms of the disorder and don’t necessarily indicate that a crisis is about to happen. You might try telling yourself that your negative feelings are just anxiety and aren’t necessarily based on facts or reality. You might also find it helpful to power through or endure the symptoms until they pass by doing deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, listening to music, taking a walk, or even tackling something on your to-do list.

Take care of your body

One more thing you can do to cope with free-floating anxiety may be to take good care of your physical health. Getting enough sleep may help you enjoy a more relaxed state during the day and improve your emotional management. 

Exercise can help invigorate you, relieve stress, and release endorphins (a feel-good hormone). By expending your body’s excess energy, you can also reduce your level of stress hormones.

You might also eat a healthy diet, as good nutrition and hydration can help you feel better. You may wish to consider avoiding stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, as they can worsen anxiety symptoms.

Consider cognitive-behavioral therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often the first-line treatment for generalized anxiety disorder and many other anxiety conditions. CBT usually focuses on addressing unhelpful, automatic negative thought patterns that can contribute to chronic stress and other challenges. Its goal is normally to adjust thought patterns in order to then adjust feelings and behaviors in a positive and healthy way that may relieve your anxiety symptoms.

Discuss medication options with a physician

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Experience relief from free-floating anxiety

Medications can sometimes help with anxiety, although they may not be the right solution for every situation and are generally considered if therapy has not made any significant improvements in your symptoms. A licensed mental healthcare provider can help you find the best course of treatment for your condition. Depending on your situation, it may include anti-anxiety medication, talk therapy, or a combination of both.

Starting cognitive-behavioral therapy for free-floating anxiety or anxiety disorders

There can be several ways to start cognitive-behavioral therapy. Visiting your doctor or primary care provider and asking for a referral to a CBT therapist can be a good resource. Another option may be to contact a therapist directly and schedule a consultation. 

Online CBT anxiety treatment with a licensed mental health professional can be another excellent option. Online therapy can provide you with the professional expertise to manage your anxiety and other mental health concerns. You can work with a therapist without leaving your home (or from anywhere you have a stable internet connection). Your life and thoughts can become more peaceful and manageable, so please don’t hesitate to get the help you deserve.

According to this study, online CBT can be as effective as traditional in-office CBT, and it can help with a variety of common mental health disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder.

Here are several ways you may manage and decrease free-floating anxiety:
  • Recognize your symptoms as they’re happening
  • Learn about the causes of anxiety
  • Check your self-talk
  • Put a positive spin on negative thought patterns
  • Don’t read too much into your symptoms
  • Take care of your body
  • Talk to a friend or loved one
  • Get help from a licensed therapist

Takeaway

Free-floating anxiety can be a common symptom of generalized anxiety disorder, and it typically refers to a chronic sense of nervousness and non-specific feelings of tension. Online therapy can be an easy and convenient way to get the help you deserve to tackle your free-floating anxiety. Take the first step toward relief from free-floating anxiety and contact BetterHelp today. 
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