Even if you’re not consciously aware of it, anxiety could still be affecting your life and well-being.

The idea of being anxious without knowing it might sound impossible. But the subconscious mind is more than capable of producing anxious thoughts, which may be hard to recognize.

Sometimes, the root cause of anxiety is clear — you might have specific worries, such as losing your job or getting sick, or specific triggers, such as social situations or air travel.

For people who live with generalized anxiety disorder, anxious thoughts can be a constant and unavoidable part of their reality. But these aren’t the only ways anxiety can manifest.

Anxiety sometimes operates “beneath the surface” of your conscious thoughts, meaning that you still feel the physiological effects of it, even if you’re not actively worried about anything in particular.

Subconscious anxiety is a type of anxiety that exists without your being fully aware of it.

It often manifests as a persistent feeling of nervousness and discomfort, which isn’t connected to anything specific or identifiable. You may feel “on edge” for no particular reason and may experience physical symptoms of anxiety such as tightness or pain in your chest, shortness of breath, muscle tension, and headaches.

Subconscious anxiety can also make it hard for you to truly relax, even when you have nothing particular to do or worry about.

During the day, this can manifest as a general feeling of restlessness or even fear, while at night, it can cause insomnia.

Because subconscious anxiety is much harder to recognize than typical anxiety, it may become a chronic state, where this state of tension becomes standard for you. But this type of underlying tension can become exhausting and debilitating over time.

This type of anxiety can create an extended state of anticipation where you’re constantly bracing for danger without any actual danger being present.

This activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response. Meanwhile, the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s “rest and digest” response, may become less active.

Subconscious anxiety can cause all the same symptoms as other anxiety disorders — the difference is that there’s no obvious cause for them, and these symptoms may go unrecognized or untreated.

Symptoms may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • rapid heart rate or feeling like your heart is pounding hard
  • racing thoughts
  • dizziness
  • feelings of panic or fear
  • nausea

But subconscious anxiety can also cause some symptoms that are less clearly linked with anxiety.

For example, it may make you more distractible and less able to focus on tasks. The constant background noise of subconscious anxiety can create overstimulation, which can affect your memory and concentration.

Indecisiveness can be another sign of subconscious anxiety. You may unconsciously go into fight, flight, or freeze mode every time you’re faced with a decision, imagining the worst-case scenario that could arise if you make the wrong choice.

This could lead to a type of paralysis, where decision making becomes nearly impossible. A 2019 study shows that anxiety can have a measurable effect on your ability to think and remember and may cause brain fog.

Brain fog describes a feeling of mental fuzziness that involves sluggish thinking, slowed response times, and a lack of mental clarity.

If the symptoms described here sound familiar to you, it’s possible that you may be living with some level of unconscious anxiety. But that may not be the only explanation for them.

Being easily distracted and having trouble focusing could be signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that affects executive function and self-regulation — the mental skills that allow us to plan, focus, multitask, and manage impulses as they arise.

Symptoms of ADHD can include being easily distracted, difficulty completing tasks, restlessness, and forgetfulness.

Panic disorder could also cause similar symptoms. This condition causes sudden, short-lived spikes of intense fear, aka panic attacks, which can strike without warning and often with no apparent cause.

Although subconscious anxiety can feel different from other types of anxiety disorders, the same treatments are effective for both. And there’s no shortage of options.

Psychotherapy is one of the most effective treatment options for anxiety. Speaking with a mental health professional can help you understand and process the thinking patterns that may be contributing to your anxiety.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often considered the “gold standard” for anxiety because it encourages you to become aware of your thoughts and develop strategies to improve your symptoms. But this is just one of the many types of therapy available.

Medication can also be helpful for people living with anxiety.

Although they can only treat the symptoms rather than the root cause, mitigating the physical signs of anxiety can vastly improve your quality of life and help you cope with any underlying trauma or distorted thinking.

Some medications for anxiety, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are designed to be taken daily, while others, such as beta-blockers, can be taken as needed.

There are also many self-help strategies that you can try at home.

For subconscious anxiety, it may be helpful to spend a little time trying to get more in touch with your underlying thoughts — journaling can be a powerful way to do this. Meditation and deep breathing exercises have both also been shown to ease anxiety and may be especially helpful when you can’t identify any particular cause.

Even if you don’t think of yourself as an anxious person or spend an excessive amount of time worrying, it’s possible that you could be living with subconscious anxiety.

If you often feel nervous and on edge for no clear reason, your fight, flight, or freeze response may be triggered by thoughts you aren’t even aware of. And becoming aware of them is the first step toward staying calm and easing your anxious thoughts.

If your anxiety becomes severe and begins to interfere with your daily life, consider reaching out to a mental health professional. They can help determine if there’s an underlying cause for your symptoms and recommend treatment if necessary.

If you’re unsure where to start, you can check out Psych Central’s hub for finding mental health support.