Multidimensional anxiety theory (A comprehensive guide)

In this guide, we will discuss the multidimensional anxiety theory and other related theories that explain the relationship on the impact that anxiety has over performance. 

What is Multidimensional anxiety theory?

According to Oxford reference, multidimensional anxiety theory is the “theory that predicts that an increase in cognitive state anxiety (worry) has a negative effect on performance. The theory is based on the premise that state anxiety is multidimensional with its two components (cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety) influencing performance differently”.

The multidimensional anxiety theory has been broadly used in the field of sports, specifically athlete’s performance.

Studies have based their theory on the connection between performance and physiological arousal making Marten’s Multidimensional Theory of Anxiety and the Catastrophe Model proposed by Hardy and Fazey (1987) two of the foremost used theories the recent years. 

There are some key terms we need to take into consideration when talking about the multidimensional anxiety theory and they are:

  • State anxiety: it is described as the emotional state marked by apprehension and tension. 
  • Cognitive state anxiety: they are related to the worrying and negative perception or thoughts about self-performance.
  • Somatic state anxiety: it can be described as the changes in perceived physiological arousal. 

Anxiety in sports settings has been a common occurrence in competitive situations which can eventually result in reduced athlete’s performance. Most of the research out there has examined this relationship very closely but we will also discuss a study performed in musician’s performance.

Practicing the power of now can help you get rid of your anxiety and look forward to what is next in your bucket list.

As many people start to get anxious over things that are non-existent for now, but ‘will’ exist in the future.

What does Multidimensional Anxiety Theory Predict?

Multidimensional anxiety theory predicts that a rise in cognitive anxiety, or worry, has a negative effect on performance. The multidimensional anxiety theory holds the premise that state anxiety is multidimensional, and that the two components of performance anxiety, that is, cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety, influence performance differently.

Previous theory on the anxiety-performance relationship

For almost a decade the most used theory was the inverted-U hypothesis used to explain the relationship between anxiety and performance where the performance will be poor if there are lower levels of anxiety, optimal performance when having intermediate levels and then if anxiety goes beyond the optimal level a worse performance outcome will be evidenced.

 However, there has been increased scrutiny and criticism of this theory, for instance, Randle and Weinberg (1997) emphasized that “these criticisms have focused on the lack of theoretical underpinnings for explaining the inverted-U relationship, the failure to precisely measure points along the arousal continuum, the failure to consider the multidimensional nature of anxiety, as well as a number of methodological and statistical limitation”. 

Here, the gap allowed to introduce other theories such as the catastrophe theory, the reversal theory, the psychic energy theory, and the multidimensional anxiety theory. 

We know from the literature that this theory is based on “the assumption that competitive anxiety is comprised of two distinct parts; a cognitive component, and a somatic component, both having dissimilar effects on performance.

Hence, theoretically, the components can be manipulated independently of one another” (McNally, 2002).

They explain how the cognitive component can be defined as “the negative expectations and concerns about one’s ability to perform and the possible consequences of failure”. 

In contrast, the somatic component is directly related to physiological effects of anxiety most of us are already familiar with, “such as an increase in autonomic arousal with negative physiological effects, like palpitations, tense muscles, shortness of breath, clammy hands (Morris, Davis & Hutchings, 1981 cited by McNally, 2002 ), and in some cases even nausea (Harris & Rovins,1981 cited by McNally, 2002 ).”

Additionally, it is believed that the development of the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 or CSAI-2 marks the culmination of the recognition of the Multidimensional Theory of anxiety in the area of sport psychology. Martens’s and colleagues proposed that somatic anxiety showed an inverted-U pattern in regards to performance, while cognitive anxiety had a negative linear relationship instead (McNally, 2002). 

Using the  Competitive State Anxiety Inventory-2 or CSAI-2, Martens and colleagues administered their inventory to a sample of athletes forty-eight hours, twenty-four hours, two hours, and five minutes (time to event paradigm) before a competitive event to demonstrate the dissociation between somatic and cognitive anxiety.

They suggested that the cognitive component was stable before the star but the somatic component began to increase prior to the related event. 

Other researchers, such as Parfitt & Hardy (1987) suggested earlier similar results finding “a relationship between the two sub-components to such an extent that there were positive effects related to cognitive anxiety in the days before a crucial event when somatic anxiety was at a low level.

In addition, they found a combination of both negative and positive effects for somatic anxiety for a range of performance-related activities shortly before the crucial event when cognitive anxiety was at an elevated level” (McNally, 2002). 

This model is not only used to measure sports performance, but it has also been applied to a study about music performance since this setting is also considered as very competitive and anxiety-provoking. 

The study conducted by Miller & Chesky (2004) brings awareness about anxiety levels perceived during a highly competitive scenario and how it impacts performance.

They implemented the multidimensional anxiety theory to describe the relationship of anxiety-performance among college music majors.  

They recruited 71 college musicians from the University of North Texas who volunteered to participate in their study.

They implemented four different assessment tools including the Competitive Trait Anxiety Inventory–2 (CTAI-2), a modified version of the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory–2 (CSAI-2), and a subjective self-assessment of performance. 

They attempted to assess performance anxiety with the CTAI-2 and the CSAI-2, where the CTAI-2 was used as a baseline assessment measuring trait anxiety as a predisposition to perceived threatening or non-threatening environmental stimuli.

In contrast, the CSAI-2 was used to measure and keep track of state anxiety as an existing/current emotional state characterized by feelings of apprehension and tension related to physiological arousal. 

Their results showed that cognitive intensity was higher than somatic intensity and the levels of cognitive and somatic intensity were associated with differential responses to anxiety.

This in term can bring awareness to teachers and clinicians to be more effective when assisting or treating students with performance anxiety. 

By the help of self-regulation you can control your anxiety or fear, even in the absence of people.

The Catastrophe Model

The catastrophe model (Catastrophe theory) was first proposed by French Mathematician Rene Thom in 1975 and later on, was adopted by Hardy & Fazey’s (1987) and introduced to the Behavioral Sciences.

This model unlike the Multidimensional Theory of Anxiety based on the fact that anxiety has two subcomponents as we have discussed, in contrast, they chose to use physiological arousal. 

As McNally mentions, “When measured by heart rate, both follow identical temporal patterns to, for example, a critical competitive event.

Nevertheless, there are a number of differences between the two in relation to their effect on performance.

It has been reasoned that physiological arousal may have a direct effect upon performance through the suppression of crucial cognitive and physiological resources (e.g. Hardy et al., 1994)”. 

 In addition, it has been suggested that since physiological arousal can be perceived either as negative or positive, it can have an impact on performance.

In contrast, he explains that “somatic anxiety is believed to affect performance only if the extent of the somatic response is so large that the athlete becomes excessively concerned and distracted with their perceived physiological state (e.g. Martens et al., 1990)”. 

In their model, if an individual is overly concerned about their performance (cognitive performance) then a “catastrophe” will occur and physiological arousal tends to reach a threshold point causing a deterioration in the individual’s performance. 

On the contrary, if the individual is exhibiting low cognitive anxiety, simply meaning they are not worried about their performance then, their physiological arousal will follow the inverted-U pattern. 

In addition, this model can predict how if there is low physiological arousal present in the days before an important event or competition then cognitive anxiety can improve/enhance an athlete’s performance in relation to baseline data (taken from training sessions). 

Why is this blog about multidimensional anxiety theory important?

We have discussed how the multidimensional anxiety theory has been widely used to explain state-anxiety influences performance, not only in the sports setting but also in music as we mentioned earlier.

Additionally, it is important to be aware that this is not the only approach or theory available when assessing performance anxiety, we also reviewed the catastrophe model and mentioned other existing approaches to predicting low or high performance.

It is also worth mentioning how anxiety is thought to be associated and related to day to day activities but is not frequently associated with sports performance of music or other contexts where there are complex human and behavioral factors, in addition to high expectations on positive performance outcomes. 

Now we know that anxiety can manifest in various settings and in the case of elite athletes it can impact them in a way that either signifies winning or losing a competition. 

Please feel free to comment in the comments section below!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about multidimensional anxiety theory

Who created the multidimensional anxiety theory?

The multidimensional anxiety theory was proposed by Martens, Vealey, and Burton in 1990.

What is cognitive anxiety?

Cognitive anxiety refers to the mental manifestations of anxiety (thoughts) that occur during anxious responses such as concern or worry. 

What is the catastrophe model of anxiety?

The catastrophe model of anxiety suggests 4 specific relationships between cognitive anxiety, physiological arousal, and performance.

It has been suggested that when cognitive anxiety levels are high, there is an increased level of physiological arousal that leads to a catastrophic drop in athletic performance.

What is competitive state anxiety?

Competitive state anxiety occurs when the demands of the sport are greater than an athlete’s perceived abilities (

What is multidimensional learning?

Multidimensional learning is described as an interactive method for teaching and learning, that allows students to “think” to generate or construct information.

This model is said to integrate various memory strategies to facilitate the learning process depending significantly on visual aids such as illustrations and graphics. 


Oxford Reference

Randle, S and Weinberg, R. (1997) Multidimensional Anxiety and Performance: An Exploratory Examination of the Zone of Optimal Functioning Hypothesis. The Sport Psychologist 

McNally, I (2002) Contrasting Concepts of Competitive State-Anxiety in Sport: Multidimensional Anxiety and Catastrophe Theories. The online journal of Sport psychology.

Miller, S.R. & Chesky, Kris. (2004). The Multidimensional Anxiety Theory: An Assessment of and Relationships between Intensity and Direction of Cognitive Anxiety, Somatic Anxiety, and Self-confidence over Multiple Performance Requirements among College Music Majors. Medical Problems of Performing Artists. 19. 12-20.

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