4 Causes of Free Floating Anxiety

Free-floating anxiety is a generalized and persistent low-level anxiety without an obvious cause.

For example:

  • While you occasionally get spikes of intense anxiety like a panic attack, your anxiety levels never quite go back to zero—leaving you mildly anxious most of the time.
  • It could also be that you rarely if ever have major bouts of anxiety or panic, but just feel “on-edge” and a little “jumpy” most of the time.
  • And for some people, they frequently get feedback from others that they often seem anxious or nervous. But because it’s simply “the water they swim in,” they often don’t even notice much of the time. Although occasionally they’ll have moments of true relaxation and calm (often as a result of consuming alcohol or marijuana) which will throw their constant low-level anxiety into relief.

Here’s the key thing to know about free-floating anxiety, though:

Just because you don’t see a cause for anxiety doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

As Sherlock Holmes was fond of telling his friend Watson:

You see, but you do not observe.

Of course, this is understandable… Most people aren’t trained psychologists who spend years honing their ability to notice subtle emotional dynamics that give rise to anxiety.

Luckily, you don’t have to be a psychologist to get better at observing the causes of your anxiety, including free-floating anxiety. You just have to practice.

As a psychologist who specializes in anxiety, I’ve found that there are a handful of common but subtle causes of free-floating anxiety. And in the rest of this article, I’ll share them with you, plus some advice about how to address them in a healthy and productive way.

1. Chronic Worry

Okay, I have to admit right off the bat that the title of this first cause of free-floating anxiety—chronic worry—isn’t 100% correct.

Technically, chronic worry doesn’t cause free-floating anxiety, but chronic worrying absolutely does.

Now, this probably seems like a ridiculously trivial distinction: chronic worry vs chronic worrying. But as we’ll see, it actually makes all the difference in the world. And in fact, I’d say that for any type of anxiety—not just free-floating anxiety—this is the single most important distinction you can make.

Here’s why…

A worry is not something you can control. Your mind constantly throws thoughts at you:

  • A memory of your third-grade teacher pops into mind.
  • A picture of how good you’ll look in that new jacket springs to life as you’re browsing online.
  • Or, a worry about what your boss is thinking of you jumps into your head in the middle of your presentation at work.

In none of those situations did you decide to have a thought. They simply happened to you. So, some thoughts—including worries—are completely outside of your control, and that’s critical to notice and accept. If your brain throws a worry at you, that’s not something you can or should try to control, even though it will produce a little bit of anxiety.

On the other hand…

Worrying is something you can control. Even though some thoughts are things that happen to you, many thoughts are behaviors that you choose to perform. They are mental behaviors, and very often, habits.

For example:

  • After a memory of your third-grade teacher pops into mind (a thought), you start imagining all the ways in which your third-grade child’s teacher isn’t nearly as good as your third-grade teacher, which leads to worrying about your child not getting into a good college, which leads to worrying about them not getting a good job, etc. (thinking)
  • After an image of you in a new jacket pops into mind (a thought), you start worrying about whether it’s too expensive, weather you’ll look like you’re trying too hard while wearing it, weather it’ll end up just another piece of clothing you bought excitedly but ends up sitting in your closet unworn (thinking).
  • Or after a worry about what your boss is thinking about you jumps into mind (a thought, specifically, a worry), you start worrying about how she thinks you’re uncreative, what would happen if you got fired, how you’ll never find a job as good as this, etc. (thinking, specifically, worrying).

All this matters for free-floating anxiety because it illustrates how most, but not all, anxiety is self-inflicted.

You will inevitably feel anxious from time to time because there will always be situations where your mind simply throws a worry at you and you feel anxious as a result.

But people with free-floating anxiety feel almost constantly anxious because they’re almost constantly worrying. Though rarely aware of it, they’ve developed a mental habit of worrying about all sorts of things, including the occasional worry that pops into mind.

The implication of this is:

If you’re constantly worrying, you’re going to constantly feel anxious.

So, if you want to lower your free-floating anxiety, it’s crucial to increase your awareness of your habit of worrying, especially worrying in response to a worry. Because it’s only when you’re (painfully) aware of your responsibility for your own feelings that you can start to take control over them.

Chronic worrying is nasty, and for many people, well-entrenched habit. But like any habit, it can absolutely be broken. But to do it you need to start with awareness… When you notice that you’re feeling anxious, ask yourself this question:

What thoughts were running through my mind just now?

Practice catching yourself in the act of worrying and you’ll be well on your way to worrying less, and as a result, feeling less anxious.

Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about how to break the habit of chronic worry(ing), this article of mine will be helpful: 4 Ways to Stop Chronic Worry →

I also teach a course on overcoming chronic worry and anxiety called Creating Calm where I share my step-by-step system for addressing the root causes of chronic worry and lowering any form of anxiety for good.

2. Need for Control

Need for control is one of those therapy-culture terms that people throw around a lot without thinking carefully about what it actually means.

But it does get at an important habit many people who struggle with anxiety, including free-floating anxiety, have:

  • They get anxious when they lack control over a situation.
  • To alleviate this anxiety, they get in the habit of taking control over situations (whether it’s helpful or not).
  • Because they get immediate anxiety relief by doing this, the habit becomes entrenched—often to the point of an addiction.
  • Now, anytime they feel anxious because they don’t have control, they feel an intense desire (a “need”) to exert control.
  • Consequently, they do more control-taking behavior.
  • This quickly becomes a very vicious cycle characterized by lots of unhelpful control-taking and ever-increasing anxiety.

The key to breaking out of the cycle is to come to terms with an important distinction:

Just because you want control doesn’t mean you need it.

Often the desire for control is really just a coping mechanism for managing anxiety. But, like with any coping skill, you get short-term relief at the expense of long-term suffering.

Life is full of situations where you lack control despite wanting it. But if you can’t tolerate that anxiety—if you’re addicted to alleviating anxiety by exerting control, however unnecessary—you’re going to run into two major problems:

  1. Your long-term anxiety will get worse. Despite the temporary relief from anxiety taking control gives, it actually increases long-term anxiety, including your free-floating anxiety, because it decreases your tolerance for anxiety.
  2. You will become a control freak. I get that that’s a somewhat crass term, but I think it’s appropriate here because a lot of people who struggle with free-floating anxiety have trouble in their relationships and don’t understand why. Well, this is often a big part of it: It’s hard for other people to get along with you or work well with you if you compulsively exert control no matter how helpful or not.

The way out of all this is to stop using control as a defense mechanism for anxiety and learn to tolerate it instead.

Anxiety isn’t dangerous. It’s not bad or wrong. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and unpleasant, but long-term, avoiding it is much more unpleasant.

A simple way to practice improving your tolerance for anxiety is to get better at validating it. Rather than impulsively reacting to anxiety with a coping mechanism like exerting control, take a moment to pause, then validate the anxiety by saying something like:

  • I don’t like feeling anxious, but it’s okay to feel this way.
  • Just because I feel bad doesn’t mean I have to do anything.
  • However unpleasant and misguided, my anxiety is just trying to help me. I don’t need to shoot the messenger just because the message is incorrect.

Learn More

This guide of mine on emotional validation is a good place to start getting better at tolerating anxiety instead of coping with it.

And if you really want to go deep on improving your ability to handle difficult emotions like anxiety in a healthy way, you might enjoy my emotional resilience masterclass, Mood Mastery.

3. Trigger Dodging

Chronic anxiety is always maintained by avoidance. And that included free-floating anxiety.

Here’s an example of how it works:

  • If you know that your coworker Jill is a trigger for your anxiety (because, for example, she tends to be hypercritical and judgmental), simply avoiding her will lower your anxiety in the short-term.
  • But what does avoiding this anxiety trigger teach your brain?
  • If your brain always sees you avoiding and running away from Jill, it’s going to assume that Jill is a threat or danger. And eventually, your brain will start generalizing this to anyone who’s a bit critical and judgmental.
  • Now you’re getting increasingly “triggered” by all sorts of people, from your mother-in-law to your kid’s high-school Algebra teacher.
  • And the more you avoid these triggering people, the more your brain learns to fear them (and the less confident you feel in your ability to handle anxiety-producing people or situations.

Avoiding triggers ironically produces more triggers which increases your long-term anxiety.

In years of working one-on-one with very anxious people, I never once saw someone improve their anxiety by getting better at avoiding triggers for their anxiety.

Because, as we’ve just explained, that’s not how the mechanics of anxiety work. Avoidance always makes it worse!

So, what are you supposed to do, then, about triggering or anxiety-inducing people?

First of all, you need to stop thinking of people or situations as anxiety-producing.

Things don’t cause anxiety. It’s your thoughts about things that make you anxious.

Think about it…

  • Your judgmental coworker’s condescending smile itself doesn’t make you anxious; it’s your worry about what that condescending smile means.
  • Your mother-in-law’s tendency to be overly-critical of your kids doesn’t make you anxious; it’s your catastrophizing about how that criticalness might be damaging their psyches that makes you anxious.
  • Your son’s overly-strict Algebra teacher and her tendency to give him poor grades isn’t making you anxious; it’s your constant worrying about him not getting into a good college that’s making you anxious.

We need to get it out of our collective heads that anxiety happens to us and start to accept that, hard as it is to hear, anxiety is a self-inflicted form of suffering.

And much of that suffering comes from our understandable but ultimately misguided intuition that triggers for anxiety should be avoided.

Instead, it’s the tendency to avoid that needs to be avoided. If you want to genuinely lower your free-floating anxiety in the long run, you need to get better at confronting those triggers and responding to them in a healthier way.

For example:

  • When your coworker makes a judgmental comment about another coworker during a meeting, rather than immediately going to worrying about it, you might chalk it up to the fact that she’s going through a difficult divorce right now and this is her (not so helpful) way of coping. Or better yet, you might meet with her one-on-one and have an assertive conversation about it.
  • When your son comes home complaining about another unfair grade on their Algebra test, rather than immediately ruminating on how unfair a grader the teacher is and worrying about what your son will do if he gets a C in the class, you might have a conversation with your son about how to handle difficulties with authority figures in a productive way.

Difficult as it is in the moment, the only way to become resilient and strong in the face of anxiety is to practice confronting it and tolerating it rather than avoiding it.

So, if you struggle with free-floating anxiety, it’s worth asking yourself:

Where in my life do I tend to avoid anxiety or potential triggers for anxiety?

Then, instead of seeing those triggers or situations as threats, reframe them as opportunities to practice reshaping your relationship to anxiety by accepting and tolerating it rather than avoiding it.

Learn More

If you’re interested in cultivating a healthier relationship with anxiety, here are a few more resources from me that might help:

4. Procrastination

Usually, we think of anxiety as a cause of procrastination:


For example:

  • A student procrastinates on writing a term paper because they’re anxious about not getting a good enough grade or because they’re not even sure where to start because they don’t understand the material.
  • A manager procrastinates on giving one of their direct reports some negative feedback because they’re anxious about hurting their feelings.
  • A parent procrastinates on booking flights for their holiday travel because they feel anxious about flying over the holidays after hearing a news report of a possible terrorist attack.

And it’s true… very often feeling anxious can lead to procrastinating.

But it works the other way around, too—though were far less used to thinking this way:


If you struggle with chronic free-floating anxiety, it’s very likely that you do a lot of procrastinating. Importantly, it may not be a major form of procrastination—procrastinating on paying your taxes, for example, or delivering an important presentation at work.

No, the kind of procrastination that causes free-floating anxiety is usually of a much smaller and more minor nature—so small, in fact, that we don’t notice it much or give it much attention.

For example:

  • An old friend texted you, you didn’t respond immediately, now it’s four days later and you keep procrastinating on it.
  • Your dad asked you to get them some information so they could finish setting up a new savings account for your kids but you keep “forgetting” about it.
  • Your car’s check engine light is on but you can’t seem to make the time to take it into the shop.

Now, keep in mind that minor instances of procrastination like this don’t necessarily have some deep psychological cause. We’re all just super busy, often a little overwhelmed, and procrastinating on relatively minor things is just sort of a normal consequence of a lifestyle like that.

But even though any one of these bits of procrastination doesn’t cause a major problem in your life—your friend is probably procrastinating on a handful of texts themselves and isn’t likely to hold it against you—the combined effect of all of them might be a bigger problem than you realize, especially when it comes to free-floating anxiety.

See, any item you’re procrastinating on—however small or minor—is like an unchecked to-do item in your brain. And your brain, responsible manager that it is, keeps track of those to-do items. And in order to make sure you remember to take of them, it reminds you of them, usually in the form of a worry:

  • Oh, shoot! I still haven’t texted Dave back…
  • Ugh, I need to gather up all that paperwork for dad’s saving’s accounts.
  • This check engine light is annoying… but what if it’s something serious?

Any one of these worries isn’t going to be hugely problematic. After all, one little worry about not texting your friend back isn’t going to generate that much anxiety.

But consider this: What if at any given time you have ten of these little to-dos that you’re procrastinating on. And let’s say that your brain reminds you a couple times a day of each of them in the form of a worry. Well, at the risk of doing public math, I think we can confidently say that 20 worries per day, no matter how small, adds up to a not inconsiderable amount of anxiety.

Enough anxiety to throw you into a panic attack? Unlikely.

But enough anxiety to generate some mild to moderate free-floating anxiety? Absolutely!

And if you combine this procrastination-generated anxiety with one or two of the previous causes of free-floating anxiety we’ve just discussed, that could certainly be having a major effect on you.

So, if you struggle with free-floating anxiety and are having trouble pinpointing a cause, take some time to consider how much procrastination there is in your life—especially minor or small bits of procrastination.

And if that is a pattern, consider addressing your procrastination first and then see what happens to your free-floating anxiety as a result.

Learn More

If you want to learn more about dealing with procrastination, here are a few resources from me:

All You Need to Know

If you struggle with free-floating anxiety, it’s important to understand that just because there aren’t any obvious causes of your anxiety doesn’t mean there are no causes for it.

Four of the most common but subtle causes of free-floating anxiety include:

  • Chronic worry
  • Need for Control
  • Trigger Dodging
  • Procrastination

If you can increase your awareness of these habits, you’ll be more likely to address them in a healthy way, and as a result, begin to lower your free-floating anxiety.

Learn More

If you’re interested in a more comprehensive and structured approach to managing chronic worry and anxiety, I teach a self-paced video course called Creating Calm that you might find helpful.

Check out the course →