Personality vs. Predicament: The Difference Between Trait Anxiety and State Anxiety

There are two types of anxiety with different underlying causes.
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Been anxious lately? There are two kinds of anxiety: trait anxiety and state anxiety. If you're curious about trait anxiety symptoms and state anxiety symptoms, it helps to know the difference between the two, which have varying underlying causes, and how you can assess how you lean.

Per the American Psychological Association (APA), the main difference between trait anxiety and state anxiety has to do with personality versus situation: Either you are anxious because your personality is predisposed toward becoming anxious (trait) or because you find yourself in a particularly anxiety-provoking situation (state).

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Read more:5 Things to Try if You're Feeling Anxious All the Time

Trait Anxiety Causes

As the APA puts it, trait anxiety arises from an inherent inclination toward becoming anxious, based on a tendency to see the world through the prism of threats and dangers.

"If we think of a person's personality and we say they're an angry person or an anxious person or a polite person, we're talking about trait aspects," says Ames, Iowa-based Douglas Gentile, PhD, a professor of developmental psychology, director of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, and director of research at the National Institute on Media and the Family.

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Those trait aspects, Gentile says, are features of your personality that are "enduring and relatively consistent." Simply put — it's who you are.

And "people certainly do have different personality traits," says Newport Beach, California-based Pamela Rutledge, PhD, MBA, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Corona Del Mar and a faculty member in the Media Psychology Program at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara.

In the case of trait anxiety, Rutledge says, it means that "maybe you're wired a little bit tighter and your anxiety level is generally higher."

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State Anxiety Causes

On the other hand, according to the APA, state anxiety results from a situational belief that one is under threat or facing danger — and, therefore, varies as situations change. Gentile says state anxiety is triggered by external factors unrelated to a personality-driven predisposition toward anxiety.

Such a "fluctuating" state of anxiety might, for example, be triggered by "a traffic jam, a long line at the bank, rudeness or a fight," Rutledge says.

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Trait Versus State Anxiety Baseline

Breaking it down to brass tacks, think inherent versus fleeting.

For trait anxiety, Gentile says, "some people are more anxious than others in general." While, on the other hand, state anxiety means that "if I were chasing any of them with a weapon, they'd all be highly anxious at that time."

Although Rutledge says the two can overlap, given that "people who are more prone to trait anxiety are probably going to be more reactive to state anxiety."

State and Trait Anxiety Symptoms

Trait and state anxiety forms also share broad symptoms of anxiety, Rutledge says.

Per the Mayo Clinic, anxiety symptoms can include:

  • Nervousness, tension and restlessness.
  • Looming sense of panic or doom.
  • Increased pulse.
  • Hyperventilation.
  • Sweating.
  • Trembling.
  • Weakness or fatigue.
  • Trouble concentrating.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • GI problems.
  • Uncontrolled worry.
  • Urge to avoid anxiety-inducing things.

Looking Up Information on Anxiety

To better understand your anxiety, there are several trusted sources to turn to. One is the National Institute of Mental Health, which offers accessible guidance on anxiety symptoms and self-care, as well as treatment suggestions.

For more treatment options, the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA) is a strong resource.

Rutledge urges people to explore such options "if your anxiety condition becomes severely problematic."

Taking Stock of Your Symptoms

One way to tell is by keeping a journal. "You don't need to research online to know how you're feeling," Rutledge says. "You know. Just keep writing down how you're doing, and you'll likely see if there's a particular pattern and how serious it is."

Per the APA, medical professionals have a reliable way to get a handle on what's afoot, called the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI).

The APA notes that the most popular version of this long-standing anxiety screening tool contains 20 checklist items aimed at specifically identifying state anxiety, such as "I am tense" versus "I feel calm." Another 20 items assess trait anxiety risk.

All told, the test can help you and your doctor get at the root source of your particular form of anxiety.

Read more:Can Certain Supplements Actually Help With Anxiety?

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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