Anxiety is a broad term that encompasses a vast range of emotions and mental health conditions. Unbeknownst to some, anxiety can be divided into two camps: trait and state. These types of anxiety are markedly different and can come with different symptoms than what many may expect.
This blog is the first of a two-part series exploring trait and state anxiety, their similarities and differences, and how they differ from generalised anxiety disorder.
State anxiety occurs when you face a threat or a stressful, frightening situation. It is a normal response to various triggers, and many people who experience state anxiety do not have an underlying anxiety disorder. The symptoms of state anxiety include:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Difficulty concentrating
- Intense feelings of worry
- Muscle tension
Your sympathetic nervous system creates these symptoms of anxiety as your body prepares for a specific situation. State anxiety passes when the threat you are facing fades. For example, if you are taking an important exam, you may feel tense and worried beforehand; however, after you have finished, your anxiety will fade.
Trait anxiety is generally considered part of a person’s personality rather than caused by a specific scenario. Those with trait anxiety may feel more anxious in everyday situations, such as their partner being distant or concern over their work or school life. They may catastrophise and think the worst-case scenario will happen – for instance, if their friend does not reply to a message in a timely fashion, someone with higher levels of trait anxiety may think that they have done something wrong and they’re being ignored.
Research has shown that there are four dimensions of trait anxiety:
- Threat in daily routines – those with trait anxiety may be anxious about what could happen in their daily routines, such as making mistakes at work or school.
- Ambiguous threat – a sense of danger or a constant worry about bad things happening can constantly plague those with trait anxiety.
- Threat of physical danger – when driving or flying, those with trait anxiety may worry about getting hurt or injured. They may also experience intense fears of illness.
- Threat of social evaluation – people with trait anxiety can feel anxious about being criticised or judged in social situations.
Trait anxiety can also lead to long-lasting somatic and mental symptoms, such as:
- An inability to focus on tasks
- Changes in appetite
- Avoidance of fears or worries
Unlike state anxiety, there is no apparent cause of trait anxiety. As trait anxiety is connected with personality, many people turn to personality models to better understand what may cause it. Some theorise that it may tie into neuroticism, a trait found in the Big Five personality model that leads people to struggle with unsettling thoughts and feelings.
Other potential causes of trait anxiety include:
- Genetics – research has shown that anxiety may be linked to different genes.
- Trauma – recently experiencing a traumatic event or experiencing one during childhood or adolescence can affect how your brain perceives situations as safe or dangerous.
Trait v State Anxiety
Experts have long debated the connection between trait and state anxiety. Some theorise that the two are interconnected, and those with high levels of trait anxiety will feel more anxious when facing threats. However, other experts want to set state and trait anxiety apart as they have unique characteristics that can occur independently.
One 2020 study supports the theory that they are independent of one another, showing that trait and state anxiety are mapped differently in the human brain. However, more research is needed to confirm these findings.
Christian Spielberger, a psychologist who pioneered research into state and trait anxiety, developed the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory to assess anxiety symptoms. This inventory helps assess levels of both types of anxiety. Still, as Spielberger himself viewed both types as separate entities, some practitioners view the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory as limiting.
The main difference between trait and state anxiety is that state anxiety is fleeting, whereas trait anxiety lingers and is an inherent part of who a person is. However, both forms of anxiety can be debilitating, and many people may benefit from therapeutic treatment.
Whether you are struggling with trait or state anxiety, therapy is a useful tool to teach you healthy coping mechanisms and help to manage your levels of anxiety. You do not have to meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder to benefit from therapy.
A therapist can help to:
- Identify and challenge negative thoughts and patterns
- Identify triggers for anxiety
- Create healthy habits
- Teach coping skills
Along with therapy, many people find complementary therapies beneficial when dealing with anxiety. These include:
- Yoga – many studies have focused on the benefits of yoga for mental health. It is proven to reduce anxiety by emphasising mindfulness and concentrated practice, allowing the mind to rest and relax unhindered by anxiety.
- Meditation – meditating is the practice of quieting your mind to promote calmness and rest. Practising meditation helps to manage everyday stress and anxiety.
- Mindfulness – often linked with meditation, mindfulness is a technique that helps to bring awareness to what is happening in the present moment. It may take some practice, but mindfulness can help manage anxiety by focusing more on the present and listening to your body.
A combination of complementary therapies and traditional therapy is often the most beneficial approach; however, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for managing anxiety. Many people may try several therapists or complementary therapies before finding an approach that suits them.
Trait and state anxiety are different types of anxiety that can produce some of the same effects. Both may make people feel worried, breathless, and restless, but the main difference lies in how long these feelings last. Trait anxiety can mean symptoms of anxiety persist for days and even weeks at a time, whereas state anxiety is over once the worrying or dangerous situation has passed.
No matter what form of anxiety you are dealing with, practising mindfulness techniques or seeking therapy can help you manage your symptoms.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling with trait or state anxiety, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
Leal, Pollyana Caldeira et al. “Trait Vs. State Anxiety In Different Threatening Situations”. Trends In Psychiatry And Psychotherapy, vol 39, no. 3, 2017, pp. 147-157. Fapunifesp (Scielo), https://doi.org/10.1590/2237-6089-2016-0044. Accessed 18 Jan 2022.
 Gottschalk MG, Domschke K. Novel developments in genetic and epigenetic mechanisms of anxiety. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2016 Jan;29(1):32-8. doi: 10.1097/YCO.0000000000000219. PMID: 26575296.
 Saviola, F., Pappaianni, E., Monti, A. et al. Trait and state anxiety are mapped differently in the human brain. Sci Rep 10, 11112 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-68008-z
 Zsido, Andras N. et al. “Development Of The Short Version Of The Spielberger State—Trait Anxiety Inventory”. 2019. Center For Open Science, https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/nuvry. Accessed 18 Jan 2022.