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Free-Floating Anxiety: It's Not What You Think

All too-common misconceptions about anxiety.

Key points

  • Free-floating anxiety is misdiagnosed and misunderstood
  • All anxiety is anchored. It is never free-floating.

The reality is that free-floating anxiety is often misdiagnosed and misunderstood.

Here are explanations of free-floating anxiety from various members of the psychological community:

The American Psychological Association defines free-floating anxiety as “a diffuse, chronic sense of uneasiness and apprehension not directed toward any specific situation or object.”

According to a contributor at, free-floating anxiety "is a feeling people get when they experience random waves of anxiety for no reason." "There's nothing to attach the fear to."

Jung called it "fear spread thinly."

Medical News Today weighs in with: "Free-floating anxiety may be due to GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) or another anxiety disorder. People with this condition have a sense of unease or uncertainty that does not relate to a specific event, object, or situation."

Freud believed it was forbidden sexual and aggressive impulses residing in the primitive part of the mind called the id. The id had to be repressed to maintain a civil society. The anxiety was caused by the fear the id impulses may break through. It can feel as if the anxiety is not rooted in a situation or occurrence.

Unfortunately too many therapists view free-floating anxiety from one of these perspectives.

Contrary to these claims, the fact is there is always a reason, thought, or cognition that causes an emotion. Epictetus the Greek Stoic philosopher observed "it's men's opinion of events, not the events themselves, that cause their emotions."

And as REBT (Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy) and CBT (cognitive behavior therapy) therapists teach their clients in an early session, often the first, all emotions are generated by our thinking about situations, not by the situations themselves.

√If, for example, you feel depressed about losing your job, it's not simply losing your job that makes you depressed but rather it's telling yourself "it's awful, terrible, and horrible I lost my job, I can't stand it, this proves I'm a total failure." As such, all our emotions are anchored in some idea, notion, belief, never otherwise.

Often, not always, what's mislabeled as free-floating anxiety is a secondary disturbance that's feeling anxious about feeling anxious. You can make yourself anxious about feeling anxious either in the present or in the future. A common instance involves when you're scheduled to give a presentation to a large audience the following day. You recognize you may feel anxious at that presentation. You start feeling anxious today when contemplating it.

Here's an example of a Three Minute Exercise (TME) you can practice to combat it:

A. (Activating event) Suppose I feel anxious tomorrow when I'm scheduled to give a talk to a large audience.

B. (Irrational Belief) I absolutely must not feel anxious during the talk.

C. (Undesirable Emotional Consequence) More anxiety.

D. (Disputing or Questioning the Irrational Belief) What is the evidence, logic, or pragmatics to prove I absolutely must not feel anxious tomorrow at my talk?

E. (Effective New Thinking) There is no evidence. Although I strongly prefer not to feel anxious about getting anxious and freezing during my talk, there is no reason I absolutely must not. Since anxiety about public speaking is more common than the fear of death, of course, of course I may be anxious. All this proves about my worth at the very worst is I'm an imperfect human who acts, thinks, and feels imperfectly.

F. (New Feeling) Concerned and practicing in front of a mirror, but not anxious.

To change your thinking and overcome your anxiety, it's essential to practice this new reasonable perspective again, and again and again.


Edelstein, M.R., & Steele, D.R. (2019). Three Minute Therapy. San Francisco, CA: Gallatin House.

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