What Is Trait Anxiety, and How Does It Compare to State Anxiety?

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.

State 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
  • irritability

In-the-moment physical symptoms might include:

  • trouble breathing
  • rapid heartbeat
  • upset stomach
  • muscle tension and pain

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.

Trait anxiety

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:

  • changes in your mood, like irritability and unease
  • trouble concentrating on tasks
  • tendency to avoid the source of your fear
  • insomnia and other sleep problems
  • appetite changes
  • fatigue
  • body aches and pains that have no clear cause