Trait and State Anxiety

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

Put yourself in any social situation for long enough, maybe a busy train, a café or even a line of people and you'll see differences begin to emerge in those around you. Some will appear entirely relaxed throughout while others may start that way but begin to appear impatient. Yet others may be fidgety, nervous and  hypervigilant  from the outset. These differences say something about our arousal system and the things that trigger anxiety.

All of us have our own pattern of arousal. It's a combination of the way our nervous system functions and thehormones  released as a result. We often notice differences in extremes of behavior. For example, some people appear able to remain cool, calm and collected no matter what is thrown at them. At the other end of the spectrum is the person who is nervous and worried about everything even though there is no obvious reason for it. In the middle there are varying degrees of difference.

Trait Anxiety

Psychologists sometimes distinguish between trait and state anxiety. A trait can be thought of as a set of characteristics that typically belong to an individual. We observe character traits everyday in the way people respond to situations. They might be funny, or sincere, or dismissive, rude and offensive. So, along with these character traits a person also brings a general state of arousal and anxiety. These differences in trait anxiety seem to appear from a very young age and probably develop as a result of  genetic  predisposition and social learning.

State Anxiety

We also know that people differ in the extent to which they find particular situations or events threatening. Some people are perfectly comfortable walking into a dark room whereas others might feel great discomfort. The main difference is that anxiety is temporary. In the dark room example simply switching on a light is sufficient to alleviate anxiety.

The State v Trait Debate

Whether it is helpful or accurate to consider anxiety in terms of state or trait is a matter of continuing debate. Some argue that trait anxiety is really better thought of as negative affect (emotion) and a possible risk factor for anxiety disorders. Others argue that although it may be appealing to compartmentalize issues such as anxiety and even depression, the empirical evidence for such separations is less compelling. Even so, measures of state and trait anxiety remain popular, for example in competitive sports where they may be used as a measure of performance prediction.

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