“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
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
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
- 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
However, not all studies came to the same conclusion. A
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
- 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
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
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.
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.
A few studies suggest that the following complementary therapies can relieve anxiety:
After reviewing STAI scores, the authors concluded that aromatherapy through inhalation or massage can significantly reduce anxiety from any cause.
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.