Anxiety serves as a (very broad) umbrella term that describes a wide range of emotional and mental health experiences.
On the more clinical end, several mental health conditions fall under the umbrella of anxiety:
- generalized anxiety disorder
- panic disorder
- social anxiety disorder
- agoraphobia and other phobias
- separation anxiety disorder
- selective mutism
In more everyday use, “anxiety” might refer to symptoms of these conditions, but you’ll also hear the term used casually to refer to passing emotions of unease, nervousness, worry, or dread.
Anxiety doesn’t end there, though. Some experts — notably psychologist Charles Spielberger — have made yet another distinction by separating state anxiety from trait anxiety:
- State anxiety. This is a natural human response. You don’t need to have an underlying anxiety condition to experience fear when facing some type of danger.
- Trait anxiety. This refers to anxiety that shows up as part of your personality, not just in stressful situations.
Below, we’ll break down the differences between trait and state anxiety and offer some guidance on getting help for persistent anxiety of any type.
Everyone experiences some level of anxiety from time to time — it’s a natural response to feeling threatened or afraid.
Still, the anxiety that comes up for you will probably depend on different factors, including the specific circumstances of the situation as well as your own unique personality.
Here’s how to tell the difference between state and trait anxiety.
This form of anxiety tends to show up when you face a potential threat or other frightening situation. It usually involves a mix of mental and physical symptoms.
Mental symptoms might include:
- feelings of worry
- difficulty concentrating
In-the-moment physical symptoms might include:
- trouble breathing
- rapid heartbeat
- upset stomach
- muscle tension and pain
State anxiety passes when a threat fades
Consider this example:
You’re driving down an unfamiliar highway as the sky gets dark. Suddenly, fat drops of rain splatter your windshield, and before you know it, you’re in the middle of a downpour. There’s nowhere to stop or turn off, and you know you’ll need to cross a bridge shortly.
It’s no surprise your heart begins to pound, you feel lightheaded, and your sweaty palms slip along the steering wheel. That’s your sympathetic nervous system, preparing you to cope with the challenge ahead.
But once you make it safely across the bridge, that emotional tension and physical distress likely fade away.
Of course, you can also experience state anxiety when there’s no actual physical threat. You just have to believe there’s one.
Say you’ve just received a terse email from your supervisor: “I need to see you in my office ASAP.”
No details, no explanation.
You know you’re not in any danger, and you can’t think of anything you’ve done that might require a reprimand. All the same, you walk down the hall to their office on slightly wobbly legs. You try to comb through your memories of the past few days to figure out what they might want, but your mind has gone completely blank.
Once you sit down in their office and they explain they just wanted to give you a heads-up about a potential software security issue, the wave of relief that crashes over you carries away those feelings of worry and fear.
Experts who distinguish between trait and state anxiety consider trait anxiety more of a fixed part of your personality — that’s to say, a personality trait.
A higher level of trait anxiety generally means you’re more likely to feel threatened by specific situations, or even the world in general, than someone with lower levels of trait anxiety.
You might tend to feel more anxious and stressed in everyday circumstances — even those that wouldn’t inspire fear or worry in others. For example:
- Your partner seems a little distant? You start to worry they want to break up.
- Still haven’t received any feedback on your thesis idea? Your professor must hate it. In fact, they’re probably trying to think of a way to explain you’re not cut out for a graduate degree, after all.
- Never heard back from your friend after your last few texts? You must have done something to upset them.
Older research notes four dimensions of trait anxiety:
- Threat of social evaluation. This might include criticism or conflict.
- Threat of physical danger. This might include things like illness or car accidents.
- Ambiguous threat. This might involve a more general sensation of doom or unexplainable worries.
- Threat in daily routines or harmless situations. This might involve fears around meeting new people or making mistakes in your work.
To put it another way, you might consider trait anxiety something of a predisposition toward experiencing those feelings of worry and fear.
Chronic feelings of anxiety and worry can leave your nervous system on near-constant alert for potential threats. As a result, you might begin to notice longer-lasting anxiety symptoms, such as:
A higher neuroticism score might mean you feel tenser, on average, and notice more changes in your moods and emotions.
You might also spend more time sitting with your thoughts and sorting through them than people with lower neuroticism scores. This tendency to examine (and re-examine) your thoughts can lead to patterns of worry and rumination.
Not all experts and anxiety researchers agree on the distinctions between trait and state anxiety.
Some believe the two work together as a single construct. In other words, the higher your level of trait anxiety, the more anxious you’ll feel when facing danger or any other threat.
Spielberger, who originally introduced the idea of state and trait anxiety, belonged to this school of thought.
Other experts draw a clear line between the two, suggesting that, while trait anxiety can increase and intensify state anxiety, the two also have unique characteristics that can develop and fluctuate independently of each other.
In any case, experts commonly use the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) to assess anxiety symptoms. This scale measures both state and trait anxiety — but it also reflects Spielberger’s single-construct approach to state and trait anxiety.
Again, experts have yet to conclude exactly what causes anxiety. Still, they do know both environmental and genetic factors can play a key role in how personality develops:
- If one of your parents lives with an anxiety condition, you have a higher chance of developing a similar condition yourself.
- Experiencing trauma and other stressful or frightening events during childhood and adolescence could affect how your body and brain respond to real or perceived threats.
As researchers learn more about the specific causes that factor into anxiety, they may also find support for clearer distinctions between state and trait anxiety — not to mention any separate functions they might have.
If you experience anxiety in times of stress, well, that’s pretty typical.
But even mild or passing anxiety can overwhelm you, and it’s not always easy to reach for helpful coping strategies in a moment of distress. This can become even tougher when the source of your stress remains a lingering fixture in your life (like a global pandemic or climate change, for example).
When persistent feelings of worry — and any physical symptoms that come along for the ride — begin to complicate everyday life, therapy can be beneficial, regardless of whether you think you’re experiencing state or trait anxiety.
Keep in mind that you also don’t need to meet criteria for an anxiety diagnosis to find therapy helpful.
A therapist can:
- help you identify potential anxiety triggers
- teach helpful coping techniques, like meditation or grounding exercises, to ease tension in the moment
- provide a safe space to share feelings of worry and fear
- help you make changes to reduce and better cope with stress in your life
If a therapist diagnoses a specific type of anxiety, they might recommend different treatment approaches, depending on your symptoms.
Still, CBT is far from the only helpful approach. Other approaches that may help people include:
acceptance and commitment therapy
- mindfulness-based therapy approaches
- exposure therapy
- art therapy
- metacognitive therapy
At the end of the day, trait anxiety might simply be part of your personality. Still, that doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to worry and insecurity.
You might not always find it easy to change key aspects of your personality, but it’s always possible to learn new ways to respond to stress.
When anxiety seems to follow hard on the heels of even the mildest threats, a therapist can offer more support with navigating fears and finding longer-lasting peace of mind.
Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.