Trait anxiety refers to the relatively stable and enduring tendency to experience anxiety about future situations or events where the outcome is uncertain but has the potential to be threatening or negative. The experience of anxiety has both cognitive (e.g., worry) and somatic (e.g., feeling tense or on edge) components. Trait anxiety is related to the broader personality domain of neuroticism and is seen as a maladaptive trait. People high in trait anxiety experience anxiety about a variety of situations or topics across time.
Sigmund Freud defined neurotic anxiety as the general tendency to find many stimuli threatening and to respond anxiously to them (Freud 1924). Charles Spielberger, who developed the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI; Spielberger et al. 1983), one of most widely and frequently used measures of the construct, defined trait anxiety as the propensity for an individual to experience state anxiety, or momentary specific instances of anxiety, frequently and in situations that are not truly threatening (Spielberger et al. 1984). From this perspective, trait anxiety reflects the frequent experience of state anxiety over time. Advances in neuroscience and clinical research have helped to differentiate trait anxiety from related constructs such as fear and anxiety sensitivity.
Anxiety is a negative emotional experience that occurs when an individual anticipates negative outcomes that may occur in the future. People high in trait anxiety experience anxiety frequently and in many situations, and they may start to avoid situations that bring about anticipatory anxiety (e.g., social situations). Because anxiety is experienced in anticipation of future negative outcomes, if the potential for threat is ambiguous, uncertain, or uncontrollable, then avoidance may not be entirely possible (e.g., one cannot control whether their partner leaves them). Instead, they may engage in safety behaviors, such as seeking reassurance that everything is ok. Trait anxious individuals are hypervigilant toward potential threats and they tend to worry excessively about bad things that could happen. Such anxiety is usually accompanied by a variety of physical symptoms (e.g., muscle tension). Trait anxiety is associated with cognitive biases that may help to maintain anxiety, in which individuals allocate attention toward threatening information, interpret ambiguous information as threatening, and over-recall threatening information (Mathews and MacLeod 2005).
Fear or Anxiety?
Fear and anxiety are both negatively valenced emotions; however, fear is the emotion that occurs in response to an immediate perceived threat and is experienced as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Anxiety on the other hand occurs in anticipation of future threat (Antony and Barlow 1996). Fear and anxiety may both be experienced in relation to the same stimulus (e.g., a snake), but fear would be experienced upon encountering a snake, and anxiety would be experienced in anticipation of encountering a snake in the future. The experience of fear is generally brief, subsiding after the removal of the feared stimulus, whereas anxiety is generally more sustained. Fear and anxiety may be provoked by stimuli that are truly threatening (e.g., a bear) or the reaction may be out of proportion to the actual dangerousness of the threat (e.g., flying on an airplane). In addition, although anxiety may be experienced when thinking about specific topics (e.g., giving a speech), the topics can also be more diffuse (e.g., general worries about work, health, relationships). Fear and anxiety may both lead to avoidance; however, fear is associated with a strong and immediate mobilization response that prepares an individual to escape the perceived threat (when this response occurs in a situation that is not truly threatening, it is experienced as a panic attack; Antony and Barlow 1996). In the case of anxiety, avoidance may be used to reduce anticipatory anxiety; for example, someone might decide not to go on vacation to prevent the anticipatory anxiety they experience leading up to a trip.
State and Trait Fear
State fear is the negative emotional experience that arises when one is faced with a threatening stimulus; it is an adaptive process that signals danger and evokes an avoidance response. Some individuals are high in trait fear and respond to a variety of stimuli with a fear response, even if those stimuli are not truly threatening. Someone high in trait fear would be afraid of and avoid many different things (Sylvers et al. 2011).
State and Trait Anxiety
State anxiety is an aversive emotional state that is experienced in anticipation of a possible threat. State anxiety is a common human experience, and experiencing some degree of anxiety may be adaptive because it may motivate people to prepare for possible threats (e.g., to study for an upcoming exam). If state anxiety is experienced frequently and persistently, it can become maladaptive and interfere with an individual’s life. Trait anxiety is the persistent and pervasive experience of state anxiety, across many situations. Trait anxiety is often associated with pathology such as anxiety disorders.
The correlation between fear and anxiety is generally weak (e.g., r = 0.32; Sylvers et al. 2011), adding support to the notion that they are distinct but related constructs. Further support for the distinction comes from findings that fear and anxiety load onto different factors, may be lateralized on different sides of the brain (fear on the right, anxiety on the left), differ in their genetic underpinnings, and are associated with different pain responses (i.e., fear is associated with a blunted response to pain, whereas anxiety is associated with an increased pain response; see Sylvers et al. 2011 for a review of the distinction between fear and anxiety).
Anxiety sensitivity is the tendency to respond fearfully to symptoms of anxiety, due to the belief that experiencing anxiety symptoms will produce undesirable consequences (e.g., misattributing bodily symptoms of anxiety as harmful). Individuals who are high in trait anxiety will not necessarily experience a fear of anxiety symptoms unless they are also high in anxiety sensitivity. Like other fears, a fear of anxiety symptoms may lead to avoidance of situations that might provoke such symptoms. Measures of trait anxiety generally assess for the frequency and pervasiveness of past experiences of anxiety, whereas anxiety sensitivity measures generally assess for the beliefs the person holds about the consequences of experiencing anxiety, regardless of how frequently they actually experience anxiety (Reiss 1997).
The STAI (Spielberger et al. 1983) is one of the most widely used instruments to measure state and trait anxiety. It consists of two scales, each containing 20 items measured on a 4 point Likert scale. A version for children and a short form version with 6 items also exist. Although Spielberger conceptualized trait anxiety as the propensity to experience state anxiety over time, when he originally used the same items to assess anxiety experienced now (state) versus anxiety experienced in general (trait), the scales were too highly correlated. Spielberger instead created a trait form with questions that were much broader (Reiss 1997). Despite its widespread use, the STAI trait scale has been criticized for not being a pure measure of anxiety, as many of the items tap into other constructs such as depression and self-esteem. The factor structure of the STAI has also been widely debated.
The State-Trait Inventory for Cognitive and Somatic Anxiety (STICSA; Ree et al. 2008) measures state and trait anxiety within both the cognitive and somatic domains of anxiety. Trait cognitive and trait somatic anxiety do not represent the type of state anxiety an individual is likely to experience, but instead reflect the type of stressor under which an individual will display elevated state anxiety. Therefore, for example, the trait cognitive scale predicts state anxiety responses to cognitive stressors (e.g., writing an exam) but not somatic stressors, and the trait somatic scale predicts state anxiety responses to somatic stressors (e.g., rapidly inhaling carbon dioxide) but not cognitive stressors.
Although fear and anxiety are separate negative emotions, the tools used to measure anxiety have suffered from cross-contamination with other constructs, such as depression. In other cases, well-designed measures of anxiety and fear have been misused (e.g., using response to an electric shock as a measure of anxiety instead of fear). This suggests that it is imperative to examine the measure used when interpreting results from research on trait anxiety. In addition, it has been argued that self-report measures may not reflect true personality but rather how a person thinks about or describes him or herself. It has been suggested that using the sum of state anxiety experiences over time would be a superior indication of someone’s trait anxiety than a self-report measure asking the person to reflect generally on his or her past experiences (Zuckerman 1976).
Important Implications for Clinicians and Researchers
Trait anxiety is linked to many negative outcomes (e.g., poorer cardiovascular recovery after stress, use of alcohol and cigarettes as coping strategy in adolescence, depression, marital dissatisfaction, and risk for developing posttraumatic stress disorder or generalized anxiety disorder after exposure to trauma). There has been discussion over whether some disorders that are currently classified as anxiety disorders are best conceptualized as disorders of fear. For example, factor analysis has shown that generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder best load onto a factor of anxious misery, whereas specific phobia, social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, and panic disorder best load onto a different factor that may be best represented as fear (Krueger 1999). However, both fear and anxiety may be experienced during the course of an anxiety disorder (e.g., someone with social anxiety may experience a fear response when they have to speak in public, as well as anxiety at the thought of having to be in social situations). Clinicians will therefore likely work on both fear and anxiety during the course of treatment, by exposing the individual to feared stimuli (e.g., situations, thoughts, images, sensations) that provoke anxiety, as well as by challenging maladaptive beliefs about dangerousness and decreasing avoidance.
- Antony, M. M., & Barlow, D. H. (1996). Emotion theory as a framework for explaining panic attacks and panic disorder. In R. M. Rapee (Ed.), Current controversies in anxiety disorders (pp. 55–76). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
- Freud, S. (1924). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. New York: Washington Square Press. 1961 edition.Google Scholar
- Ree, M. J., French, D., MacLeod, C., & Locke, V. (2008). Distinguishing cognitive and somatic dimensions of state and trait anxiety: Development and validation of the state–trait inventory for cognitive and somatic anxiety (STICSA). Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 36, 313–332.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- Spielberger, C. D., Gorsuch, R. L., Lushene, R., Vagg, P. R., & Jacobs, G. A. (1983). Manual for the state-trait anxiety inventory (form Y). Palo Alto: Mind Garden.Google Scholar
- Spielberger, C. D., Pollans, C. H., & Worden, T. J. (1984). Anxiety disorders. In S. M. Turner & M. Hersen (Eds.), Adult psychopathology and diagnosis (pp. 263–303). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
- Zuckerman, M. (1976). General and situation-specific traits and states: New approaches to assessment of anxiety and other constructs. In M. Zuckerman & C. Spielberger (Eds.), Emotions and anxiety (PLE: Emotion): New concept, methods, and applications (pp. 133–174). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar