Subconscious Anxiety: What It Is and How to Recognize It – Healthline

Living with anxiety doesn’t always mean fixating on specific fears.

Many people with generalized anxiety disorder do notice their thoughts center on current sources of distress or worry. Yet others experience anxiety less consciously.

It’s certainly true that people with anxiety might live in a state of “anxious expectation,” as Freud described it. But you could still have anxiety even if you don’t spend much time actively worrying about meeting people, experiencing a disaster, losing your job or relationship, or anything else.

You might instead notice a persistent sense of nervousness and unease running as “background noise” as you go about your day. Or maybe you find yourself restless, tense, and unable to relax more often than not.

This “subconscious” anxiety, or anxiety you aren’t fully aware of, can still take a toll on mental and physical well-being. Here’s how to recognize the signs and get support.

You might think of anxiety as a mental health condition that mostly just involves a lot of worrying. If you never find yourself nervous over anything and everything that could possibly go wrong, you might reason you probably don’t have anxiety.

This may not necessarily be the case, though, since anxiety can show up in different ways.

When you notice at least a few of these signs on a regular basis, it may be worth exploring them a little more closely.

Distractibility and disorganization

Do you often find yourself struggling to pay attention at school, work, or when spending time with loved ones?

Maybe you feel disconnected and detached from daily life and your regular activities. People might even call you scatterbrained because you have trouble finding things, remembering plans you’ve made, or showing up on time.

Anxiety can affect your ability to concentrate, make plans, and process new information, even when you don’t fully recognize the source of your anxiety.

Trouble making decisions

Anxiety can often leave you feeling as if your thoughts are fuzzy or clouded over. This brain fog can affect your focus and lead to challenges when you try to work through problems or make decisions.

Occasional indecisiveness isn’t always a major concern. If you can’t decide what to wear in the morning, you might run a little late for work, but it probably won’t have too much of an impact on your overall life.

Struggling to make decisions on a regular basis, however, can have more far-reaching effects. Maybe you can’t decide what to study in college, so you end up in a program you don’t have much interest in.

Or you end up moving in with a partner you don’t see a future with, because you can’t figure out what you really want in a relationship. (This can hurt both of you in the long run.)

Indecisiveness can even lead you to act on impulse. When you can’t make up your mind, you might end up making decisions without thinking them through — spending beyond your budget, moving to a different city (or state) on a whim, or quitting your current job with no specific plans about what to do next.

Sure, these choices can absolutely work out, but regular impulsiveness can sometimes complicate your life and even create new problems.

Emotional overwhelm

Anxiety can slowly and subtly wear down your ability to cope with ordinary stressors and life challenges.

Maybe you don’t exactly feel worried, but even anxiety running in the background can take up brainpower and make it more difficult to manage your emotions. You might notice irritability, tension, or edginess that bubbles over and spills out when little things go wrong.

This overwhelm can show up as frustrated, angry, or tearful outbursts, even when you wouldn’t describe your mood as angry or sad.

Intrusive thoughts and rumination

You might have some experience with disturbing thoughts that pop into your head without warning or reason. Intrusive thoughts can be frightening, since they often focus on violence, sex, or harmful or dangerous situations.

Even when you’re aware that most people have these thoughts on occasion, you might still worry about what they mean and why you have them. A pattern of rumination, or returning to the same thought or loop of thoughts over and over, is associated with both anxiety and depression.

Intrusive thoughts don’t just happen with anxiety, but they often prompt rumination, especially when you become preoccupied with trying to avoid or prevent them.

Rumination can happen in other situations, too — when you’re struggling to solve a problem or make a decision, for example.

Trying to break the rumination cycle? These 10 tips can help.


Anxiety can sometimes manifest as a need to get everything just right. A tendency toward perfectionism often stems from underlying worries about making mistakes and experiencing criticism or rejection as a result.

You might reason, whether you’re aware of it or not, that no one can find fault with you if you handle your responsibilities flawlessly, become the perfect friend or partner, and always look your best.

Perfection is pretty difficult to achieve, though, so you might find this goal only adds more stress, in the end.

Defensive pessimism

Anxiety can involve vague feelings of danger or doom rather than specific fears. You might feel as if you need to prepare for the worst, even if you don’t know what the “worst” actually is.

There’s a name for that: defensive pessimism.

Experts describe defensive pessimism as a strategy to better manage daily anxiety. Instead of looking toward the future with hope and optimism, you might carefully consider everything that could go wrong so you can create a backup plan, just in case.

Anxiety doesn’t just show up in your thoughts.

For some people, anxiety proves more physical than anything else. Commonly recognized physical signs of anxiety include a nervous stomach, sweaty hands, or a pounding heart. But that’s not all anxiety can do.

You might also notice:

Physical anxiety symptoms can contribute to concern for your health, especially when you don’t realize these symptoms relate to anxiety.

Appetite and sleep loss can also leave you feeling drained, exhausted, and without the energy or motivation to explore these symptoms further.

The signs listed above don’t automatically translate to anxiety. That’s why it always helps to connect with a mental health professional trained to distinguish key symptoms of anxiety from other concerns.

Conditions that involve similar symptoms include:

Panic disorder

A panic attack involves intense but short-lived feelings of anxiety and fear that seemingly arise from nowhere, often without any specific cause.

You might experience:

  • difficulty breathing
  • chest pain
  • feelings of doom
  • a sensation of losing control
  • a sense of detachment from your surroundings

Panic attacks usually happen without warning, so you won’t have symptoms all the time.

If you have regular or repeated panic attacks, however, you could have panic disorder. This anxiety condition also involves worries about having more panic attacks.

Some people also have what are commonly referred to as anxiety attacks, though this isn’t a specific diagnosis. An anxiety attack can feel similar to a panic attack, but it generally won’t involve detachment or fears of dying or losing control.

Sleep disorders

It’s not uncommon to have trouble sleeping when you have anxiety, but anxiety can also be a symptom of general sleeping difficulties.

If you regularly struggle to get enough sleep and also notice some feelings of worry or uneasiness during the day, you could have a sleep disorder.

Sleep deprivation can have a pretty big impact on both physical and mental health. It can also produce symptoms that resemble anxiety symptoms, including:

Your body needs regular quality sleep for optimal health, so it’s important to connect with your healthcare team when you have a hard time getting the sleep you need.


Persistent sadness and low mood commonly characterize depression, but not everyone who has depression feels sad. In fact, depression often involves many of the same symptoms as anxiety, including:

  • difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • pessimism or worries about the future
  • general uneasiness and distress
  • changes in sleep habits and appetite
  • rumination, or fixation on negative thoughts

Depression and anxiety commonly occur together, so a therapist can offer support with identifying symptoms and finding the most helpful treatment.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

There’s some overlap between symptoms of ADHD and anxiety. Both conditions can involve:

ADHD typically involves more restlessness, distractibility, and difficulty concentrating. Since these symptoms can prompt feelings of nervousness and unease, you might find it challenging to recognize the difference — particularly if you have both ADHD and anxiety, which many people do.

Only trained medical and mental health professionals can diagnose anxiety, or any other condition. A therapist can help you identify symptoms, explore potential triggers, and begin taking steps toward feeling better.

Possible options for anxiety treatment include:

The most effective treatment can look a little different for everyone, so it always helps to share your treatment goals and preferred approach with your care provider.

Plenty of therapists specialize in anxiety treatment, and many can also offer guidance with meditation and other helpful techniques. Online therapists and psychiatrists can often help with anxiety symptoms.

If you need help now

Anxiety is fairly common, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. If you or someone you love has thoughts of suicide, a crisis helpline can provide immediate support:

Untreated anxiety can eventually begin to affect your regular routines, create relationship challenges, and add distress to daily life. Your symptoms may not entirely align with “classic” signs of anxiety, but anxiety doesn’t happen in the same way for everyone, so reaching out to a professional is still a helpful step.

No matter what’s causing your symptoms, a therapist can offer guidance and support with navigating them effectively.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.