“Trait anxiety” describes anxiety that is part of someone’s personality or way of seeing the world. A related concept called state anxiety describes anxiety that only occurs in response to stressful situations.
Psychologists regard trait anxiety as
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.
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
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
- 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.
Not all studies have reached the same conclusion, though. A
The following table lists examples of trait anxiety and state anxiety in different situations:
|Trait anxiety||State anxiety|
|Health||feeling low level worry about health even when a person has no sign of illness||feeling worried about health problems only when there are symptoms or a significant risk of illness|
|Sports||often feeling worried about performance or losing a game, even if there is no indication that this will happen, or the stakes of losing are low||feeling anxious only when it looks as though losing is likely|
|Driving||feeling general unease or worry about driving||feeling 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
- 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
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
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.
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.
A few studies suggest that the following complementary therapies may ease anxiety:
After looking at STAI scores, the authors concluded that aromatherapy through either inhalation or massage may significantly reduce anxiety, regardless of the cause.
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.