Floating: A Common Anxiety Symptom

Mags - March 28, 2017

Many of us in the sisterhood have described the sensation, during moments of intense anxiety, of watching ourselves as if we were not in our own bodies. Not that I don’t often dream of being in someone else’s body (preferably someone smaller). But this particular anxiety symptom is no one’s dream. It’s weird and frightening and, frankly, can make you think you’ve gone off the deep end.

While Abs describes it like a scene from the movie Ghost, when Patrick Swayze is looking at his just-murdered body, trying to figure out how he is still able to think and talk outside of it, I consider the experience more like I am watching myself move through the world completely disconnected from everyone and everything. Another anxiety sister says it is like “watching yourself from above.”

However you describe the experience, it is common enough that doctors have a name for it: “depersonalization,” which means you actually feel outside yourself—literally, outside your personhood. Abs and I find this term, in itself, anxiety-provoking, so we gave it a kinder, gentler name: floating. We like to think of our minds just taking a rest, hanging out in the air and observing our very anxious bodies from a safe distance. Once our bodies stop spinning with anxiety, our minds will simply float right back into our bodies where they belong.

Whether you refer to this as depersonalization or floating (or losing your mind!), there are very few things scarier than this out-of-body experience. As far as symptoms go, this one is definitely a doozy. And, for panic attack sufferers, it is also fairly common.

If you find yourself floating, here’s what to do:

First, remind yourself that, while utterly discombobulating, this is just a symptom—and a typical symptom which many many others have experienced. You are not alone!

Next, go right to TLC. Talk to yourself (use your mantras), Loosen any constraints like tight clothing, and Cool yourself off.  I find that during a floating episode, walking outside (especially if it is cold) helps connect me back to my body. Another woman we interviewed floats so often, she keeps a rubber band on her wrist to snap her back to connectedness.

Been floating? Share your experience with us. What helped you?

26 thoughts on “Floating: A Common Anxiety Symptom

  1. Do you think that it will happen if you have ptsd too. I hate that feeling and do it quite often. Yesterday was bad, driving is hard and working with it is the pits.

    1. Floating is quite common in PTSD sufferers…it’s your brain’s way of escaping. Have you tried the rubber band trick? (Keep a rubber band around your wrist–not too tight, but snug. Whenever you feel yourself starting to float, snap the rubber band a few times and it will bring you back to the here and now.)

      Let us know how you are doing.
      Abs & Mags

  2. I have definitely experienced this , I remember as a child telling someone about this and their response scared the Bejesus out of me . She said it was the devil trying to take my soul . What ?’!! Boy if that didn’t make maters worse as my anxiety grew along with me . What’s worked for me is when I feel it creeping up on me I start to count or spell things in my head . This is what. I’ve learned now is called grounding. It was a self made coping skill. Much love to you both hope this helps ❤️

    1. Grounding is an excellent technique for handling “floating.” I used to use a rubber band which I kept on my wrist–whenever I would start to float, I would snap the rubber band and bring myself back…

      Much love to you!

  3. I have vivid dreams where I am floating above everyone else. So real I have to think if it was a dream or did I really do it.

  4. I started having these episodes as a child and didn’t have the nerve to tell anyone about them until I was about 44 yrs old. I was afraid I was totally crazy. I talk myself through them..but I’m always afraid I’m going to go there and never come back to myself.

    1. Tammy–

      Floating can be very frightening, but, rest assured, you will come back to yourself. But it helps to know how common this symptom is and how many others have experienced the same thing.

      Welcome to the Sisterhood!

      Abs & Mags

  5. Thank you for posting this! I have experienced this for such a long time but I never knew why. I frequently feel like this in social situations. It’s so weird and makes me feel incredibly self conscious. But, like many others, I didn’t want to tell anyone for fear of being judged, etc. This helped finally put a name on it and also gave me some coping skills to help deal with it! Thank you so much!

    1. Hi,
      It sounds like you are having social anxiety (which can be thought of as a phobia). Grounding yourself is a great way to deal with it (see our blog on grounding). The positive side of floating is that while it is really unpleasant, it is not dangerous and nobody else knows what you are experiencing. I used to be a major blusher which sucked because everyone noticed. Also, social anxiety is really treatable with cognitive behavioral therapy and other therapies (and even meds). Much love, Mags and Abs

  6. I’ve never had the floating but when I’m just falling asleep I feel like the whole bed is violently vibrating and some force (feels like some huge jet engine or something) is lifting my body off the bed and I have to cling on to the mattress for dear life. There’s also incredibly loud roaring sound. It’s so frightening. Has anyone had anything like this? I’ve never had it until the anxiety business started!

  7. Hi Deb,
    Believe it or not the feeling of falling as you are going to sleep or when you are asleep may have an evolutionary reason/purpose. Some scientists have posited that in an earlier evolutionary state we used to live largely in trees. Falling asleep was often a dangerous time because we could fall out of the tree literally. It is why that feeling of needing to hold on for dear life is the most reported dream/nightmare or feeling as we are going to sleep. It makes sense that your anxiety kicked up this feeling (falling out of a tree would be quite anxiety-provoking and dangerous). So even though your dream comes with noise and vibrations, I imagine that the root is the same. Interesting, right? Mags and Abs

  8. This an everyday state of mind for me..it is a defense mechanism of your brain …. called disassociation.I lose track of several days at a time and can’t remember specifics about any particular day..I would like to escape it….but don’t know how

    1. Pamela,
      Yes, disassociation is the clinical term for it. I am wondering if you have gotten any kind of help with this issue? I am so sorry that it lasts for days at a time, that sounds very traumatic. Much love, Mags and Abs

  9. Yes that is interesting but I sleep on my front and it was like a force was in the air trying to drag me upwards out of the bed. I’ve had the falling sensation but it’s not the same. When I used to hear people speak about anxiety I thought it was a kind of extreme nervous feeling. Until I hit menopause and started suffering from it I had no idea that the symptoms are so wide-ranging and at times, so frightening! x

  10. I had my first experience floating last week. It was very scary. I’m going to try wearing a rubberband around my wrist to see if it helps.

    1. Hi Cindi,
      Different techniques work for everyone. Abs uses the rubber band trick. Mags often tries to use the idea of taking a walk (in very cold weather), using a cold cloth or cold water on the face, or eating something with a strong mint taste (a lifesaver, a bit of essential oil, a peppermint)…those types of things that wake up senses often work best.
      Mags and Abs

  11. I have literally spent the majority of my life in this state; so much so that i thought it was normal, that it was how it is in everyone’s heads. I had no idea that this was a symptom of anything. I’ve always felt like there were three of me. The ideal healthy self, the self destructive self, and the me that’s in the middle, wondering which way I’ll go, what choice I will make. I even make jokes to my friends like, “This is the part of the movie where I…” I’ve always loved to write, as well, and it makes so much sense now, why I’ve always written in the third person. Maybe for some people, this “symptom” leads to creative arts? Interesting..

    1. Hi,
      The creative arts are, of course, filled with people that are dealing with depression, anxiety, etc. Creative people tend to be outside the mainstream and that is not always easy.

  12. I was terribly abused sexually as a child by my stepfather. It went on for years. I have terrible anxiety, panic attacks & night terrors to this day. Along with bouts of severe depression.
    When I was a child going through this, I left my body all the time at night. Years later I was told by health professionals that this is a very common coping skill for children being abused.
    I can remember seeing myself from the air. Floating high above. Sometimes I’d see my tether, other times not.
    In the years since, I have found myself wishing I could have that feeling of peace again.

    1. LoriBelle,
      So many Anxiety Sisters stand with you in this pain. Yes, floating is an adaptive way to deal with terrible abuse and a way to take one outside a painful and frightening situation. It is a long journey dealing with this very complex PTSD, and we just wanted to let you know that you are not alone. Mags and Abs

  13. I relate to this, not remembering specifics of any day. It’s like my life is a fuzzy dream. Or I’ve looked in the mirror before and it’s like I dont even know who that person looking back at me is. It’s like I’m going threw this life, but at the same time I feel like I haven’t been. Does this make any sense??

    1. Chelsie, This may be connected to floating and slightly different as well. It is really hard not to feel connected to yourself. Sometimes counseling and meds are really helpful in putting it all together, especially if you have been through a lot of trauma. mags and abs

  14. “ floating” as you are calling it has ( well I think it has) has a big part in causing my driving phobia…I will be in the car and feel like the car is pulling itself… like I’m not in control… and that terrifies me…. I feel this way also when I when I am walking through a big store ( like Wal-Mart) which is why I avoid those places… I know I am walking but I don’t feel anything… I literally feel like I am floating… and that’s so scary…..I’ve never spoke with anyone who has felt this… and I feel like people think I am crazy… I don’t hyperventilate like some… I “ float” and get super agitated with my anxiety… I am a very peaceful person outside of my anxiety…. i feel like I’m watching myself from a distance.. like I’m not there… and that sounds crazy… especially when you say it out loud… I’m so glad it’s not just me….

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