Free-Floating Anxiety: When You Feel Anxious for No Apparent Reason

Racing pulse, tense muscles, dry mouth, restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating… The symptoms of anxiety are many, but sometimes we can’t pinpoint why exactly we experience this panicky feeling. Objectively, everything seems to be going well, and yet the sensations of anxiety are definitely there.

The American Psychological Association refers to this phenomenon as free-floating anxiety, a diffuse sense of uneasiness and apprehension not directed toward any specific situation or object. Although free-floating anxiety is not recognized as a disorder, it can still be very uncomfortable.

The origins of free-floating anxiety

Free-floating anxiety is believed to originate from a hyperactive amygdala, the part of the brain that participates in regulating emotional responses and particularly the fear response.

There are many reasons why the amygdala may become hyperactive, such as trauma. When someone goes through a traumatic experience, the wiring of the amygdala changes. This makes us more likely to stay in a state of high alert, always on the lookout for potential dangers — even when there are none.

Another potential cause for free-floating anxiety is chronic stress. If you are currently experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety symptoms may pop up during what feels like the most random of times because you are unconsciously bracing yourself for more stress.

Even though you believe you are just sitting in front of your computer, trying to study or doing work that feels fairly routine, your brain is playing a game of “what if” in the background, trying to figure out what could go wrong.

So of course, it’s can be hard to focus and to get any work done.

You may be thinking: I’ll just push through, surely the anxiety will eventually disappear. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way. Pushing through is yet another stressor. By trying to ignore your anxiety, you can end up feeling even more anxious. So, what can you do instead?

How to manage free-floating anxiety

There are three simple techniques you can apply to manage free-floating anxiety. I call it the Full Spectrum Reset because it addresses all the factors of anxiety in order of importance, starting with emotional factors, then cognitive factors, and finally behavioral factors.

1. Reset your body

Anxiety is a psychophysiological response. It’s your body’s way of signaling that something feels off. One of the simplest ways to deal with free-floating anxiety is to stimulate your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which will effectively counteract the fight-or-flight response by slowing down your heart rate, reducing your blood pressure, and helping your mind relax.

To do this, stop whatever you’re doing, and stretch. It doesn’t need to be a full-on stretching session. You don’t even need to get up if you can’t. You just need a few dynamic movements and maintaining your muscles in a position to the end of their range of motion.

Take a deep breath, inhaling while lengthening your spine, then exhale while rotating your torso to one side, gazing over your shoulder. Repeat the spinal twist on the other side. Inhale while lengthening your body, exhale while rotating your body. Taking slow, deep breaths will help stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system.

To finish resetting your body, drink a glass of water. Dehydration can mimic some symptoms of anxiety, such as having a dry mouth or feeling lightheaded, so staying hydrated can help manage those false triggers of anxiety.

2. Reset your mind

Free-floating anxiety can arise from unconscious emotions. By naming your emotions, you will be able to better understand and manage them. This process helps in making your feelings more tangible and less overwhelming. This technique is called affective labeling, where by naming your emotional state you can better manage your physiological response.

Research has found that engaging in affective labeling reduces activity in the amygdala and results in higher brain activity in your prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain in charge of executive functioning. Just labeling your emotions will help you feel more calm and in control, and reduce the sensation of free-floating anxiety.

The easiest way to do this is five minutes of journaling. Just ask yourself: What am I feeling right now? You don’t even need to write full sentences, just a list of words that describe your emotions. For example, you could write that you’re feeling:

  • Tense
  • Worried
  • Nervous
  • Uneasy
  • Concerned

Affective labeling is literally “putting feelings into words,” It only takes a few minutes, and it’s a free, non-chemical way to increase activity in your prefrontal cortex and reduce activity in your amygdala.

Instead of just feeling a general sense of anxiety, you may realize that what you are actually feeling stress about a deadline, or maybe you’re worried about an upcoming social event. Once you have labeled these emotions, you can start addressing them more effectively.

3. Reset your plan

Free-floating anxiety can make us perceive tasks as more overwhelming than they actually are, which can make us feel stuck. Psychologically, this is a mix of “catastrophizing,” which is when we imagine the worst possible outcomes, and “analysis paralysis,” where overthinking things leads to inaction.

To reduce the cognitive load, you need to choose an action that requires minimal mental energy and no extra planning. Look at your task list, and choose the easiest thing you can do right now — not the most urgent one, not the most important one, but really the easiest task that you can do right now.

Is there an email you can send? A draft you can read to check for typos? Some little piece of copy you can write for social media? What you are looking for is a small win, something that will shift your focus to the present moment and move you from a state of paralysis to a state of action.

There you have it, the Full Spectrum Reset: reset your body, reset your mind, reset your plan. It’s a quick and easy way to deal with those moments when you are feeling anxious for no obvious reason:

  • Reset your body. Stretch, breathe, and drink a glass of water.
  • Reset your mind. Journal for five minutes to label your emotions.
  • Reset your plan. Start one easy task to get unstuck.

Again, those three steps should not take more than ten minutes. Anything longer may cause even more anxiety. Pressing “reset” needs to be easy and quick. The goal is to get rid of a random feeling of anxiety so you can get back on track.

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