Anxiety is a natural response to frightening or stressful events. In evolutionary terms, anxiety is part of your “flight or fight” response that determines if you face danger head-on – or run away screaming. Anxiety also makes sense in plenty of other high-pressure contexts, such as speaking in front of a crowd or taking a test. But what about when your anxiety is so over-the-top and out of proportion that it causes problems?
That’s the point at which your anxiety becomes a disorder. And if you have an anxiety disorder, you’re not alone – it’s one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States. In fact, over 18% of the United States population (about 40 million adults) are thought to have at least one anxiety disorder. 4
There are several types of anxiety disorders, each with its own criteria and symptoms (though many share some overlap). There’s social anxiety, which is when an individual is afraid of public or crowd-related situations. Specific phobias, such as a fear of snakes or spiders, can become so debilitating that a person phobia-proofs their entire life. And panic disorder leaves individuals at an increased risk of experiencing terrifying panic attacks in response to their stressors. 4
But what do you anxiety that seems to come on without a particular stressor?
This is what’s known as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a mental health disorder characterized by bouts of anxiety that occur without an apparent cause. One of the hallmarks of GAD is a general feeling of distress, agitation, or even dread – without a catalyst to start the anxiety ball a-rolling. This inexplicable and unexplained anxiousness is often referred to by another name: free-floating anxiety. 1 2
In this article, we’ll discuss the symptoms of GAD and its accompanying free floating anxiety, as well as potential causes and triggers. We’ll also cover treatments and strategies to deal with GAD.
A Quick Look at Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Anxiety disorders are characterized by their extreme responses to stress-inducing events. While almost everyone occasionally has anxiety, it reaches the level of a disorder when it interferes with a person’s ability to function. Extreme anxiety can cause difficulties in your personal relationships, professional connections, and day-to-day life. 2 3
The Origins of GAD
Generalized, free-floating anxiety was first described by Sigmund Freud in 1894. However, it was not until the 1980 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-III, that GAD was recognized as an official disorder. But at that point, it was not considered its own category insomuch as it was a “catch-all” for anxiety disorders that did not fit traditional descriptions. Since then, our understanding of anxiety and mental health has greatly increased, with these changes reflected in how we diagnose and categorize anxiety. The DSM-IV, in particular, was a turning point for generalized anxiety, as official criteria were outlined to help professionals diagnose GAD. 5
Anxiety can present with a combination of mental and physical symptoms depending on the specific variant. In the case of GAD, individuals often grapple with a feeling that the worst is about to happen. This may be in the context of your job, personal relationships, or financial situation – or just life in general. But these anxieties don’t always kick in when something happens; rather they feel like they’re floating around freely, with no discernable series of cause-and-effect events. Hence the name: free-floating anxiety. 1 2
Of course, a “legitimate” stressor can kick off a bout of anxiety, too. However, the resulting anxiousness is almost always an over-the-top response. Something as simple as a comment from your boss on how to improve productivity can be taken as a doomsday pronouncement that they’re hunting for your replacement immediately. (Cue three days of obsessing over your every task searching for those extra thirty seconds of productivity in your day).
Often times, individuals with generalized anxiety disorder are aware that their level of anxiety is not proportionate to the response. However, even this intellectual acknowledgment is not enough to keep the anxiety at bay. In fact, for some, giving a metaphorical nod to the absurdity of the response can serve to make anxiety and obsessional tendencies worse. 2
Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder comes with a myriad of potential symptoms aside from disproportionate and excessive worry. Some of these may include: 1 3
- Free-floating anxiety or general feelings of dread
- An inability to cease obsessive thought patterns
- Irritability or annoyance
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sleeping difficulties or insomnia
- Feelings of constant exhaustion or tiredness
- Unexplained pains such as headaches, muscle aches, and stomach aches
GAD can come with a number of other physical symptoms, as well. Some people experience bouts of shaking, sweating, or lightheadedness. Sometimes, it can be hard to catch your breath. You may also feel like you need to urinate far more often than usual.
Triggers and Causes of Free Floating Anxiety
There is no one particular cause or trigger for free-floating anxiety. Rather, there are several risk environmental and genetic factors that may contribute to the likelihood that you may develop anxiety. Some of these risk factors include: 1 3
- Being born female
- Genetic predisposition
- A family history of anxiety disorders
- Neurochemistry or hormonal imbalances
- Long-term stress
- Traumatic events
- Physical health conditions, such as heart arrhythmia or thyroid disorders
Life stressors may also contribute to an individual who has never had anxiety developing anxious tendencies later in life. Poverty, chronic pain or illness, career and family stressors, and substance abuse can all lead to a clinical anxiety diagnosis. 2 3
Possible Treatments for Free Floating Anxiety
There are many therapies that may help GAD and free-floating anxiety. Often, this includes a combination of medication, such as antidepressants or benzodiazepines, with psychotherapy. Incorporating exercise and meditation practices such as yoga or mindfulness exercises can also ease anxiety symptoms and provide healthy outlets. Many psychiatrists also use CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, to connect their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 1 2 3
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