Difference Between State and Trait Anxiety

Young woman looking vexed
A woman experiencing anxious thoughts in her apartment. (Image: Tristanbm/iStock/Getty Images)

Anxiety is a state of inner unrest or uneasiness often described as "nervousness." Worry, jitteriness, sweating, an increased heart rate, rapid breathing and other feelings and symptoms commonly accompany anxiety. A long-held and still popular distinction between "state" and "trait" anxiety allows anxiety to be thought of in two ways: as a temporary emotional state that nearly everyone experiences and as a consistent personality attribute.

State Anxiety

State anxiety describes the experience of unpleasant feelings when confronted with specific situations, demands or a particular object or event. State anxiety arises when the person makes a mental assessment of some type of threat. When the object or situation that is perceived as threatening goes away, the person no longer experiences anxiety. Thus, state anxiety refers to a temporary condition in response to some perceived threat.

Trait Anxiety

Like state anxiety, trait anxiety arises in response to a perceived threat, but it differs in its intensity, duration and the range of situations in which it occurs. Trait anxiety refers to the differences between people in terms of their tendency to experience state anxiety in response to the anticipation of a threat. People with a high level of trait anxiety experience more intense degrees of state anxiety to specific situations than most people do and experience anxiety toward a broader range of situations or objects than most people. Thus, trait anxiety describes a personality characteristic rather than a temporary feeling.

Examples

Many people experience anxiety before speaking in public. For most people, these feelings of anxiety start before they begin speaking, continue during the speech but subside immediately after the speech ends. This is an example of state anxiety. Differences in how strong the feeling of anxiety is in different people when they are confronted with a public speaking engagement constitutes one measure of trait anxiety. For instance, one person may feel only slightly nervous whereas another may feel faint and nauseated. In addition, some people with a high level of trait anxiety experience anxious feelings in many different situations that do not evoke anxiety in most people. Everyday examples include seeing a dog in a fenced yard or crossing an intersection with traffic.

Psychiatric Disorders

State and trait anxiety are concepts that also apply to the anxiety that occurs in psychiatric disorders, especially anxiety disorders. A phobia represents an intense feeling of anxiety or fear that is associated with a specific event or object, such as a snake, spider or high place. Phobias represent types of state anxiety. Once the feared event or object is not present or forgotten, the person no longer experiences anxiety. Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is a disorder in which the person experiences anxiety over many different situations for at least 2 years. Such people are considered chronic worriers who fret over both trivial and important matters. GAD represents a clinical manifestation of trait anxiety.

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