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What is trait anxiety? Definition, examples and treatment

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

Psychologists consider trait anxiety as stable and persistentaffecting the way a person thinks in the long run.

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

However, theories differ as to the definition and causes of long-term anxiety. Although there is evidence to suggest it is the result of structural differences in the brain, some researchers believe that deeply held 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 treatment options for trait anxiety and when to talk to a doctor or therapist.

Characteristic anxiety is a tendency to feel anxious in many situations. It is 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 can often express anxiety about situations that don’t cause anxiety in others.

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

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

Is trait anxiety the same as generalized anxiety disorder?

Characteristic anxiety involves a person generally feeling anxious, but it is not necessarily a disorder. For a person to meet the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), they must experience:

  • excessive worry that is difficult to control and disproportionate to the situation
  • at least three of the following symptoms:
    • restlessness or nervousness
    • difficulty concentrating
    • muscle tension
    • sleep disorder
    • irritability
    • gets tired easily
  • symptoms that another condition, such as substance abuse, does not explain better

These symptoms must be present for more days than they have been for at least 6 months.

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

For example, a person may feel anxious when they are late for work, but calm down when they arrive on time. This anticipatory anxiety is typical and decreases once the situation is resolved.

It is possible for people to have both trait and state anxiety. However, how or if these types of anxiety influence each other is unclear.

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

However, not all studies came to the same conclusion. A study 2020 which mapped differences in how trait- and state-related anxiety affects 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:

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

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

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

Structural differences in the brain

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

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

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

Functional differences in response to stress

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

The DMN plays a role in conscious thought, social cognition, emotional processing, and memory retrieval. The SN helps detect and filter 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 article from 2013 describes 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 the danger or uncontrollability of worry may be a causative factor.

The authors state that trait anxiety may be the result of maladaptive thinking styles. They are ways of thinking that emerge in response to a life event but eventually become useless. For example, experiencing betrayal can lead someone to believe that everyone is untrustworthy, which leads to fear of strangers.

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

Treating trait anxiety can involve both traditional medical treatments and complementary approaches.

Traditional treatment

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

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular options. CBT is about identifying and dealing with the factors that cause anxiety, such as certain thoughts and beliefs.

An older clinical trial from 2009 compared the effects of CBT with those of psychodynamic therapy in 57 people with GAD. Although the two interventions had broadly similar results, CBT was more effective in reducing trait anxiety and worry.

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

Complementary therapies

A few studies suggest that the following complementary therapies can relieve anxiety:

aromatherapy

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

After reviewing STAI scores, the authors concluded that aromatherapy through inhalation or massage can significantly reduce anxiety from any cause.

mindfulness meditation

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

Music

Research from 2017 tested the effects of music on 409 pregnant women. An analysis of data involving STAI scores suggested that music may offer an effective way to reduce anxiety in people at term. It may also increase the likelihood of a spontaneous onset of labor and reduce the need for medication.

Although trait anxiety is a more persistent part of a person’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 to a doctor or therapist if the anxiety is:

  • disrupt their work or relationships
  • interfere with their ability to perform daily tasks
  • keep them from doing things they love
  • causing sleep disturbances
  • making them feel isolated
  • causing worrying thoughts that are frightening or hard to control

Characteristic anxiety is a term for anxiety that often occurs and is part and parcel of a person’s way of thinking or personality. In contrast, state anxiety is anxiety that only occurs in certain situations.

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