“Trait anxiety” describes anxiety that is part of someone’s personality or way of seeing the world. A related concept to trait anxiety called state anxiety describes anxiety that only occurs in response to stressful situations.

Psychologists regard trait anxiety as stable and persistent, affecting how a person thinks in the long term.

People with high trait anxiety may feel worried or fearful in a variety of situations. In contrast, people with low trait anxiety may only experience state anxiety occasionally.

However, theories differ as to the definition and causes of long-term anxiety. Although there is evidence to suggest that it is the result of structural differences in the brain, some researchers believe that deep-rooted beliefs may be an underlying mechanism.

This article examines trait anxiety in more detail, including how it differs from state anxiety and its potential causes. It also looks at the treatment options for trait anxiety and explains when to speak with a doctor or therapist.

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Trait anxiety is a tendency to feel anxious across many situations. It forms part of a person’s personality, which describes the unique ways in which individuals think, feel, and behave.

People with high trait anxiety tend to perceive things as threatening where others might not. They may frequently express anxiety about situations that do not provoke anxiety in others.

Theories about personality and the role that anxiety plays in it vary among different schools of thought. However, many models of personality include trait anxiety, or neuroticism, as a component.

Sigmund Freud provided the first description of anxiety as a personality trait. Charles D. Spielberger contributed to the concept in 1983, when he published the Manual for the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI).

Is trait anxiety the same as generalized anxiety disorder?

Trait anxiety does involve a person feeling generally anxious, but it does not necessarily constitute a disorder. For someone to meet the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), they must experience:

  • excessive worry that is difficult to control and out of proportion to the situation
  • at least three of the following symptoms:
    • restlessness or nervousness
    • difficulty concentrating
    • muscle tension
    • sleep disturbance
    • irritability
    • becoming fatigued easily
  • symptoms that another condition, such as substance misuse, does not better explain

These symptoms must be present on more days than they are not over the course of at least 6 months.

Whereas trait anxiety is a stable part of how someone thinks and feels, state anxiety is a temporary state that only occurs in response to or anticipation of stressful situations.

For example, a person might experience state anxiety when they are late for work but calm down once they get there on time. This anticipatory anxiety is typical, and it reduces once the situation resolves.

It is possible for people to have both trait and state anxiety. However, how or whether these anxiety types influence each other is not clear.

An older 2012 study notes that people with higher trait anxiety tend to have higher state anxiety, which may suggest a relationship between the two.

Not all studies have reached the same conclusion, though. A 2020 study that mapped differences in how trait and state anxiety affect the brain found that the correlation between them was not statistically significant.

The following table lists examples of trait anxiety and state anxiety in different situations:

Trait anxietyState anxiety
Healthfeeling low level worry about health even when a person has no sign of illnessfeeling worried about health problems only when there are symptoms or a significant risk of illness
Sportsoften feeling worried about performance or losing a game, even if there is no indication that this will happen, or the stakes of losing are lowfeeling anxious only when it looks as though losing is likely
Drivingfeeling general unease or worry about drivingfeeling worried only in dangerous or unexpected situations while driving

Several factors may contribute to a person developing trait anxiety. Some general risk factors for anxiety disorders include:

  • genetics
  • family history of anxiety or mental health conditions
  • exposure to stressful or traumatic events in childhood or adulthood

There are also various theories and studies on the mechanisms behind trait anxiety, more specifically.

Structural differences in the brain

A 2020 study evaluated 42 people with trait and state anxiety using an anxiety questionnaire and MRI scans. It found that those with high trait anxiety had structural and functional brain changes, while those with state anxiety had only functional brain changes.

Individuals with high trait anxiety had anatomical changes in gray matter, but those with state anxiety did not. Gray matter is where processing occurs. It is different than white matter, which is where areas of gray matter communicate with each other and the rest of the body.

This finding may explain why trait anxiety is more long-term and pervasive than state anxiety.

Functional differences when responding to stress

In the same 2020 study, people with high trait anxiety also showed functional changes in the default mode network (DMN) and salience network (SN). Scientists believe that these parts of the brain are involved in reflective thought.

The DMN plays a role in conscious thought, social cognition, processing emotions, and memory retrieval. The SN helps with detecting and filtering out important stimuli.

These differences in how the brain processes information may make some people more likely than others to perceive certain things as dangerous.

Beliefs and thinking styles

Another potential cause of trait anxiety is a person’s core beliefs, which shape how they assess danger and risk. An older 2013 paper describes the overestimation of danger as a type of bias.

It is unclear whether this bias is the cause of trait anxiety or the result of brain changes that make these perceptions more likely. However, a 2019 study suggests that negative beliefs about danger or the uncontrollability of worry may be a causal factor.

The authors state that trait anxiety may be the result of maladaptive thinking styles. These are ways of thinking that emerge in response to a life event but that ultimately become unhelpful. For example, experiencing betrayal may lead someone to believe that all people are untrustworthy, causing them to become fearful of strangers.

This is an example of overgeneralization, which is one type of maladaptive thinking.

The treatment for trait anxiety may involve both traditional medical treatments and complementary approaches.

Traditional treatment

The American Psychological Association notes that psychotherapy is an effective treatment for numerous types of anxiety.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular options. CBT involves identifying and managing factors that provoke anxiety, such as certain thoughts and beliefs.

An older 2009 clinical trial compared the effects of CBT with those of psychodynamic therapy on 57 individuals with GAD. Although both interventions had similar outcomes overall, CBT was more effective in decreasing trait anxiety and worry.

There are many types of therapy. With the most suitable type and the right therapist, a person may feel comfortable talking about their feelings and experiences. In some cases, taking medications alongside therapy may help reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

Complementary therapies

A few studies suggest that the following complementary therapies may ease anxiety:


In a 2020 meta-analysis, researchers examined 32 clinical trials to determine the effects of aromatherapy on anxiety. Aromatherapy is a holistic treatment that uses essential oils to improve health.

After looking at STAI scores, the authors concluded that aromatherapy through either inhalation or massage may significantly reduce anxiety, regardless of the cause.

Mindfulness meditation

A 2020 study evaluated the effects of mindfulness meditation on 49 people. Mindfulness meditation is a practice of being aware and accepting of the present moment. It involves deep breathing and a focus on sensations around the body and thoughts crossing the mind. The results indicated that the intervention may decrease trait anxiety.


Research from 2017 tested the effects of music on 409 pregnant people. A data analysis involving STAI scores suggested that music may offer an effective means of lowering anxiety in those at full term. It may also increase the likelihood of a spontaneous start to delivery and reduce the need for medication.

Although trait anxiety is a more persistent part of someone’s thoughts and feelings than state anxiety, it is still treatable. With the right support, people can learn to reduce anxiety and cope better with challenges.

A person may wish to speak with a doctor or therapist if anxiety is:

  • disrupting their work or relationships
  • interfering with their ability to carry out daily tasks
  • preventing them from doing things they enjoy
  • causing sleep difficulties
  • making them feel isolated
  • causing worrying thoughts that are frightening or difficult to control

Trait anxiety is a term for anxiety that occurs often and is a consistent part of someone’s way of thinking or their personality. In contrast, state anxiety is anxiety that only occurs in certain situations.

Research has shown that trait anxiety may be related to differences in the brain’s structure or function. Deep-rooted beliefs and a sense that people or situations are threatening may also contribute to the symptoms. A licensed therapist can help people with high trait anxiety work through their feelings and learn healthy ways of coping with them.