So, what causes someone to develop free-floating anxiety? More often than not, a number of factors can play a part.
Anxiety can be inherited, and multiple genes can predispose you to anxiety. If you have parents with GAD, 2017 research suggests you’re more than twice as likely to develop the condition yourself.
It can help to picture genes like light switches. Certain events in your environment can flip those switches, contributing to the development of anxiety. If you inherit anxiety-related genes from your parents, those switches become a lot easier to flip.
The genes that predispose you to free-floating anxiety can also increase your chances of developing other types of anxiety, such as agoraphobia or social anxiety.
Your genetic makeup also plays some part in your personality, though your environment can also contribute to personality. A 2020 study found evidence of a link between anxiety and neuroticism, a Big Five trait.
A 2021 brain imaging study suggests people with free-floating anxiety often have differences in the structure of their brains. Their neurons may be unusually dense in certain areas and sparser in others.
The more densely packed neurons are between two areas, the easier those parts of the brain tend to communicate. With free-floating anxiety, the parts of your brain that control emotion, memory, and judgment may communicate very well or very poorly.
These differences in your brain can cause:
- Heightened threat response. Your stress levels may rise more sharply and quickly when faced with a threat. You might have trouble telling the difference between a serious danger and a more minor or negligible one.
- Negativity bias. You might bring negative memories to mind more easily than positive ones. You might also identify the risks of a plan more easily than any potential benefits.
- Hypervigilance. You might find yourself searching for potential threats even in “safe” situations. You might find it difficult to set your worries aside, even temporarily.
- Difficulty reducing arousal. It may take your brain longer to silence its alarm bells and calm down. While you’re still on edge, it’s easier to perceive potential threats, which restarts the fight-or-flight response.
In other words, your brain structure may increase your sensitivity to your environment, effectively keeping you in an anxious state.
If you live in a turbulent, unpredictable, or dangerous situation — political violence, an abusive relationship, or a pandemic, just to name a few — you may face a lot of genuine threats to your well-being. You may feel like danger could come from any direction, at any time.
In these situations, fear is a natural response. If you can’t predict where the danger will come from, it might make sense to remain on guard against everything. That kind of vigilance can offer a sense of control.
But if you remain in that hyper-aroused state for too long, you can become locked in to that new normal. Even when the old threat is gone, scanning for threats can become a strong habit. Your anxiety may simply move to a new target rather than dissolving.
Your brain isn’t being stubborn — it’s simply trying to protect you. If you get hurt again, you might enter a state of panic, which can be exhausting. Your brain may find it easier to keep up a constant, low level of worry than risk a sudden bout of extreme stress.
Children are especially vulnerable to environmental stressors. After all, they usually don’t have much control over their environment, and they haven’t developed the coping methods that adults often possess.
In fact, 2020 research suggests that childhood trauma or abuse can affect how the brain’s stress centers develop. This can cause free-floating anxiety that may last into adulthood.