What is characteristic anxiety and how does it compare to state anxiety?

Anxiety is a generic (very broad) term that describes a wide range of emotional and mental health experiences.

From a more clinical point of view, several mental health problems relate to anxiety:

In more everyday use, “anxiety” can refer to the symptoms of these conditions, but you will also hear the term used casually to refer to transient emotions of unease, nervousness, worry, or dread.

The anxiety doesn’t end there, however. Some experts – notably psychologist Charles Spielberger – have made another distinction in separating state anxiety from trait anxiety:

  • State of anxiety. It’s a natural human response. You don’t have to have an underlying state of anxiety to feel fear in the face of some type of danger.
  • Anxiety trait. It refers to the anxiety that comes across 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 tips for 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 fearful.

Yet, the anxiety that arises for you will likely 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 condition anxiety and trait anxiety.

State of anxiety

This form of anxiety tends to show up when you are faced with a potential threat or other frightening situation. It usually involves a mixture of mental and physical symptoms.

Mental symptoms can include:

  • feelings of worry
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability

Physical symptoms at the time may include:

  • difficulty in breathing
  • rapid heartbeat
  • stomach ache
  • muscle tension and pain

Of course, you can also experience state anxiety when there is no actual physical threat. You just have to believe that there is one.

Suppose you had just received a terse email from your supervisor: “I need to see you in my office as soon as possible. ”

No detail, no explanation.

You know that you are in no danger and you cannot think of anything that you have done that might require a reprimand. All the same, you walk down the hall to their desk on slightly wobbly legs. You try to comb through your memories of the last days to find out what they might want, but your mind has gone completely blank.

Once you sit down in their office and they explain that they just wanted to let you know about a potential software security issue, the wave of relief that sweeps over you wash away those feelings of worry and worry. fear.

Anxiety trait

Experts who distinguish between trait anxiety and state anxiety consider trait anxiety a fixed part of your personality, i.e. a personality trait.

A higher level of trait anxiety usually means that you are 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 out in everyday circumstances, even those that would not inspire fear or worry in others. For example:

  • Does your partner seem a little distant to you? You start to worry that they want to break up.
  • Still haven’t received feedback on your thesis idea? Your teacher must hate this. In fact, they’re probably trying to find a way to explain that you’re not cut out for a graduate degree after all.
  • Have you never heard back from your friend after your last texts? You must have done something to upset them.

Older research notes four dimensions of trait anxiety:

  • Threat of social evaluation. This can include criticism or conflict.
  • Threat of physical danger. This could include things like illness or car accidents.
  • Ambiguous threat. It can involve a more general feeling of unhappiness or inexplicable worries.
  • Threat in daily routines or in harmless situations. It can involve fears of meeting new people or making mistakes in your job.

To put it another way, you could Think of trait anxiety as a predisposition to experience these feelings of worry and fear.

Chronic feelings of anxiety and worry can leave your nervous system on an almost constant alert for potential threats. As a result, you might start to notice longer lasting symptoms of anxiety, such as:

  • changes in your mood, such as irritability and discomfort
  • difficulty concentrating on tasks
  • tendency to avoid the source of your fear
  • insomnia and other sleep problems
  • appetite changes
  • tired
  • aches and pains with no clear cause

The underlying causes of anxiety, including trait anxiety, are still a mystery. But trait anxiety is likely tied to a specific dimension of personality: a Big Five trait known as neuroticism.

A higher neuroticism score may mean that you feel more tense, on average, and that you notice more changes in your moods and emotions.

You might also spend more time sitting with your thoughts and sorting them out than people with lower neuroticism scores. This tendency to examine (and re-examine) your thoughts can lead to worrying and brooding patterns.

Not all anxiety experts and researchers agree on the distinctions between trait anxiety and state anxiety.

Some believe that the two work together as one construction. In other words, the higher your trait anxiety level, the more anxious you will feel about 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, both also have unique characteristics that can develop and fluctuate independently. one from the other.

A little Study 2020 offers some support for this idea. The research findings have highlighted some differences in the way the brain maps trait and condition anxiety, suggesting that trait and condition anxiety may indeed be separate constructs. . That said, the study’s authors agree that future research may offer more information.

In any case, experts routinely use the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) to assess symptoms of anxiety. This scale measures both state and trait anxiety, but it also reflects Spielberger’s unique construction approach to state and trait anxiety.

Again, experts have yet to conclude exactly what causes anxiety. Still, they know that environmental and genetic factors can play a key role in personality development:

  • If one of your parents is living with an anxiety problem, you are more likely to develop a similar problem yourself.
  • Experiencing trauma and other stressful or frightening events during childhood and adolescence could affect the way your body and brain respond to real or perceived threats.

As researchers learn more about the specific causes that contribute to anxiety, they may also find support for clearer distinctions between state and traits of anxiety, not to mention the distinct functions that ‘they might have.

If you experience anxiety during times of stress, well, that’s pretty typical.

But even mild or transient anxiety can overwhelm you, and helpful coping strategies are not always easy to find in a time of distress. It can become even more difficult when the source of your stress remains a lingering part of your life (like a global pandemic or climate change, for example).

When lingering feelings of worry – and any physical symptoms that accompany the journey – begin to complicate daily life, therapy can be of benefit whether you think you are suffering from condition or trait anxiety.

Keep in mind that you also don’t need to meet the criteria for an anxiety diagnosis to find helpful therapy.

A therapist can:

  • help you identify potential anxiety triggers
  • teach helpful coping techniques, such as 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 cope better with stress in your life

If a therapist diagnoses a specific type of anxiety, they may recommend different treatment approaches, depending on your symptoms.

Many therapists recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety. a older study from 2009 even noted CBT may have a particular benefit for trait anxiety.

Yet CBT is far from the only useful approach. Other approaches that can help people include:

Find out more about other anxiety management strategies.

Some evidence suggests that anxiety may play a role in the risk of depression. So it’s always worth contacting a therapist for further advice when anxiety becomes a more permanent presence in your life.

Ultimately, trait anxiety might just be a part of you. 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 is always possible to learn new ways of responding to stress.

When anxiety seems to follow the milder threats closely, a therapist may offer more support in overcoming fears and finding longer lasting peace of mind.

Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. His areas of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sexual positivity, and mental health, as well as books, books and more. In particular, she is committed to helping reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and an adorably recalcitrant cat.

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