What is the difference between state and trait anxiety?

Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress. However, when this anxiety persists and overwhelms a person, it may be termed as an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a common mental health disorder affecting 18 percent of the population or 40 million American adults. This disorder can develop due to a combination of multiple factors like brain chemistry, personality, experiences, life events, and genetics.

The word anxiety is a broad umbrella term that covers a range of emotional experiences. Clinically, it covers disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), separation anxiety disorder, phobias, selective mutism, and panic disorder. These disorders are defined based on their symptoms.

Now, psychologist Charles Spielberger has offered another distinction based on the way anxiety is mapped in the human brain. The new categories offered by him are state anxiety and trait anxiety.

  • State anxiety: This type of anxiety is triggered as a response to a stressful situation.
  • Trait anxiety: This type of anxiety is triggered because of a person’s predisposition to react anxiously to a situation.

Let us look at both these types of anxieties in details.

State Anxiety

State anxiety, as the name suggests, is triggered when a person feels that they are in a stressful state of affairs or situation. This stress response changes as per the situation. For example, a person would react differently if they were stuck in a traffic jam compared to how they would react if they were in a car accident. Once the situation changes, their level of anxiety also changes.

A person battling from state anxiety would display a mix of physical and mental symptoms. The physical symptoms might include difficulty in breathing, tensed or strained muscles, rapid heartbeat, upset stomach, etc. On the other hand, mental symptoms would include irritability, worry, trouble concentrating, trouble focusing, etc.

Trait Anxiety

Trait anxiety is when the person is characteristically inclined to become anxious. According to the Director of Research, Dr. Douglas Gentile, National Institute on Media and the Family, people can be described based on their personality traits. Similarly, people suffering from trait anxiety can be described as generally anxious people. Their anxiety is triggered even in situations that might not ruffle others.

According to a previous research, conducted by Pollyana Caldeira Leal and her team from the Department of Physiology, Center for Biological and Health Sciences, Federal University of Sergipe Brazil, trait anxiety is triggered when these four types of threats or fears are experienced.

  • Ambiguous fear: Unexplainable fears and feelings of doom
  • Fear of social evaluation: Fear of disapproval, criticism, disagreement and confrontation
  • Fear of physical danger: Accidents or physical ailments
  • Fear in harmless situations or in daily routines: Being uncomfortable in meeting new people or being scared of making mistakes.

In the case of trait anxiety, the body is in a constant state of alert. This results in long-term changes that may become permanent. These may include:

  • Constant irritability and unease
  • Difficulty focusing on tasks
  • Disturbed dietary patterns
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Fatigue
  • Avoidance behavior
  • Unexplainable body aches and pains

Experts have still not been able to find the exact cause for trait anxiety. However, they do agree that people with a higher neuroticism score tend to feel more anxious and tensed. They also dwell on their feeling longer re-examining them repeatedly creating anxiety. Such people are also more aware of their mood changes.

Are state and trait anxiety different?

While one school of experts feels that in spite of this characterization, there might be an overlap in the categories as naturally anxious people would react more anxiously to state anxiety situations, the other school of experts says that both these have their unique characteristics. Further, even though trait anxiety may intensify the response to state anxiety, both types have features that may fluctuate and develop independently of each other.

It is believed that as researchers delve deeper into the causes of anxiety, they would be able to figure out evident differences between state and trait anxiety. They might also be able to unravel the reason why the brain maps them differently and even if they have specific functions.

Seeking therapeutic help for anxiety

Anxiety disorders can become overwhelming, complicating every aspect of an individual’s life. In a situation like this, professional therapeutic help provides a safe place where you can discuss your feelings. This can help identify your triggers, develop coping strategies, and plan an effective treatment program so that development of comorbid mental health disorders can be prevented.

If you or a loved one is suffering from anxiety or any other mental health disorder, get in touch with the Medical Concierge. Our treatment professionals can help identify your symptoms, diagnose the mental health problem, and offer customized mental health treatment plans. Call our 24/7 helpline 877-636-0042 to know more about mental health treatment in California. Alternatively, you can chat with our experts online to understand what makes us a credible health treatment center in California.

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