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The Difference Between Trait Anxiety and State Anxiety and When to Seek Help

Oct 07, 2021
The Difference Between Trait Anxiety and State Anxiety and When to Seek Help
Anxiety is a natural response to stress. When anxiety persists or becomes overwhelming, it can evolve into something more.

Anxiety is a natural response to stress. When anxiety persists or becomes overwhelming, it can evolve into something more. 40 million adults in the US, roughly 18% of the population, are affected by an anxiety disorder every year making it the most common mental illness. This disorder can develop due to a combination of factors such as brain chemistry, personality, experiences, life events, and genetics.

Anxiety itself is a very broad term in that it describes a wide range of emotional and mental health experiences. Many may associate anxiety with feelings of unease, nervousness, worry, or dread. From a clinical perspective, several mental health conditions fall under the umbrella of anxiety:

  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • panic disorder
  • social anxiety disorder
  • agoraphobia
  • separation anxiety disorder

Some experts have recently taken things a step further and segregated out state anxiety from trait anxiety. Psychologist Charles Spielberger has offered this new distinction based on the way anxiety is mapped in the human brain.

State Anxiety: This is a natural human response. There does not have to be an underlying anxiety condition to experience a reaction. State anxiety is a transient emotional state associated with a temporary increase in sympathetic nervous system activity.

This type of anxiety tends to show up when you face a potential threat or other frightening situation. Once the threat fades, state anxiety passes. Symptoms you might experience include:

  • feelings of worry
  • difficulty concentrating
  • rapid heartbeat
  • trouble breathing

Trait Anxiety: This refers to anxiety that occurs as a result of your personality, not just situationally. Trait anxiety is thought to be associated with different psychopathological conditions and constant high arousal.

Experts distinguish trait anxiety as more of a fixed part of your personality, a predisposition towards experiencing feelings of worry and fear. These are chronic feelings that have your nervous system on constant alert for potential threats and as a result, you experience longer-lasting symptoms of anxiety.

Experiencing anxiety during times of stress is normal. When the anxiety remains a lingering fixture in your life, this can be tough to deal with and might be a sign that it is time to seek help. Persistent feelings of worry, coupled with physical symptoms can be eased through therapy and professional intervention. The sooner you reach out, the sooner you will have the support you need to quell your anxiety and restore a lasting peace of mind.

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