Trait Anxiety(A brief guide)

In this guide, we will discuss what trait anxiety is, differences between trait and state anxiety and how to measure.

Trait Anxiety: can we measure anxiety?

The state-trait anxiety inventory or STAI is a widely accepted measure for two types of anxiety: trait and state anxiety.

This was elaborated by Spielberger and collaborators in 1983 and it has been used in clinical settings for the diagnosis of anxiety and to differentiate it from depressive syndromes.

It is also used by researchers as an indicator of caregiver distress (APA).

It is arbitrary to think we can quantitatively measure anxiety and put it in a number when the intensity varies from one person to the other, but two people having different perceptions of their anxiety and different manifestations can actually get the same score. 

However, this is an objective way of determining this construct and having the opportunity to study it under different experimental conditions, aiming to better understanding and being able to propose ways to counteract anxiety levels. 

Trait Anxiety(A brief guide)

What is trait Anxiety?

Trait anxiety is considered a stable characteristic related to personality.

According to Wiedemann (2001),  “experiencing more frequently state anxiety combined with a general view of the world as being threatening and dangerous is used as a marker of trait anxiety”. 

In contrast, State-anxiety can be defined as a transitory emotional state that consists of feelings of apprehension, nervousness and physiological symptoms such as increased heart rate or respiration (Wiedemann, 2001).

Additionally, state-anxiety can be measured by different instruments that have been developed from years of research on the matter.  

The encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine defines Trait Anxiety as “a stable tendency to, experience, and report negative emotions such as fears, worries, and anxiety across many situations”. 

Moreover, it is necessary to mention an additional difference between state and trait anxiety and that is the case for the terms “worry” and “emotionality”.

Worry is expressed as the cognitions or thoughts that go through our minds when we are experiencing anxiety and this is the response to situations we perceive as threatening or dangerous situations. 

So, we can say that worry is initially a natural and automatic response that is meant to keep us from being harmed or injured.

Emotionality, on the other hand, is the perceived arousal manifested through a series of physical responses and reactions such as sweating or having a faster heart rate. 

Background of state and trait anxiety

Trait anxiety was first used as a psychodynamic concept but it lacked consistency and ways to observe it when someone was having an anxiety episode.

Later on, the concept was adopted by Spielberger to develop his famous and widely used State-Trait Anxiety Inventory or STAI.

The concept of state and trait anxiety was used by R.B. Cattel which was adapted subsequently by Spielberger (1996, 1972, 1976, 1979).

It has been considered that personality states and emotional states may be regarded as temporary (at a given moment in time) in the life span of an individual. 

Trait Anxiety(A brief guide)

The emotional states are regarded as existent in a given moment and experienced with particular intensity on the contrary “Anxiety states are characterized by subjective feelings of tension, apprehension, nervousness, and worry, and by activation or arousal of the autonomic nervous system” (State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for adults Manual, 1983).

Atkinson (1964) refers to personality traits as “motives” and Campbell (1963) as “acquired behavioral positions”.

Atkinson defines “motives” as tendencies acquired in childhood that get “activated” when the situation or context required it and for Campbell, the acquired dispositional concepts involve past experiences that involves a particular way in which individual views and perceives the world (State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for adults Manual, 1983).

Trait Anxiety(A brief guide)

How to measure Trait Anxiety?

There are many instruments used nowadays to measure anxiety but there is one specifically we would like to talk about, and that is the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. 

This inventory has been used extensively in research and clinical practice.

Based on the definition given earlier about trait anxiety, there are two scales within the STAI, the STAI S-Anxiety scale that evaluates feelings of apprehension, tension, nervousness, and worry in the present moment or “right now” and the T-Anxiety scale has twenty statements that represent how people generally feel. 

Trait Anxiety(A brief guide)

This scale has been used extensively to assess the level of S-Anxiety derived from experimental procedures and the exposure of real-life stressors such as imminent surgery, dental treatment, job interviews, or important school tests. 

The second scale, STAI T-Anxiety, has been used in assessing clinical anxiety in medical, surgical, psychosomatic and psychiatric patients and it has been found that psychoneurotic and depressed patients score higher on this scale.

It has been also widely used as a screening test for high school and college students and military recruits. 

Applications of the STAI

The STAI has been considered a reliable measure to assess the effectiveness of certain interventions such as psychotherapy, counseling, behavior modification or drug treatment program.

Meaning, the difference between pre-test scores and post-test scores should differ, allowing to indicate that the treatment applied after the pre-test had a positive effect on reducing the anxiety levels. 

Content of the inventory

 This measure contains 2 scales, the first scale is the State Anxiety Scale (S-Anxiety) meant to evaluate the current state of anxiety, asking the person taking the test to how they feel at the present moment, using items that measure subjective feelings of apprehension, tension, nervousness, worry, and activation/arousal of the autonomic nervous system. 

The second scale is the Trait Anxiety Scale (T-Anxiety).

This scale evaluates relatively stable aspects of being prone to anxiety or to be anxious including general states of calmness, confidence, and security.

How is the STAI applied?

This self-report questionnaire is administered through paper and pencil individually or in groups, and specific instructions are provided for each of the subscales.

It takes approx 10 minutes to complete. 

What are the response options?

The S-Anxiety scale assesses the intensity of the current feelings in terms of the present moment as:

  1. Not at all
  2. Somewhat
  3. Moderately so
  4. Very much so

The responses for the T-Anxiety scale measures the frequency of the feelings in general terms:

  1. Almost never
  2. Sometimes
  3. Often 
  4. Almost always

Scoring and interpretation

Item scores are added to obtain subtest total scores.

Scoring should be reversed for anxiety-absent items (19 items of the total 40).

The score range for each subtest is 20-80, the higher score indicating anxiety.

The cut point of 39-40 has been suggested to detect clinically significant symptoms for the S-Anxiety scale. 

Measuring state-anxiety

In one study conducted in  2012 by researchers from the department of psychological sciences from Kwansei Gakuin University, Nishinomiya, Japan and Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil they aimed to examine how the level of trait anxiety influences state anxiety and penalty shoot-out performance under pressure by instruction. 

What did they use to measure state-anxiety?

They implemented Spielberger’s Trait Anxiety Scale with trait anxiety scores, control and pressure conditions manipulated by instructions.

They instructed the participants to individually perform 20 shots from the penalty shoot-out point, aiming at the top right and top left corner areas in the soccer goal. 

What were the results?

The results showed that when they were under the instructional condition, the state anxiety scores increased more and the number of successful goals decreased more in high trait anxiety groups than in low trait anxiety meaning that higher state anxiety interferes with goal performance.

Subsequently, someone with a higher anxiety trait score in the STAI tends to have higher state anxiety scores.

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They could confirm that the pressure for success influences anxiety and performance, meaning higher trait anxiety tends to have higher state anxiety (perceived threatening situation) and higher state anxiety interferes with goal performance.

Why is this blog about trait anxiety important?

It is important to be aware of the extensive research there is and the efforts that have been made to understand and measure in the most accurate way what we understand by anxiety.

We know that trait-anxiety and state-anxiety can be differentiated, the first as being related to a personality trait and state anxiety related to an emotional transitory state. 

Please feel free to comment on the content of “Trait Anxiety” in the comments section down below.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about Trait Anxiety

What is Trait Anxiety?

Trait anxiety refers to a stable personality trait that is related to the tendency we have to attend to, experience and report emotions perceived as negative (e.g fears or worries) across many situations.

What is the difference between trait and state anxiety?

The difference between trait anxiety and trait anxiety is that the first refers to a trait of personality describing, individual differences related to a tendency to present state anxiety.

State anxiety is related to the physiological and psychological bodily reactions that can be perceived as adverse in a specific moment. 

What is competitive trait anxiety?

Competitive trait anxiety is a personality trait that is reflected in competitive sports making the person more prone to experience stress under those situations.

What causes anxiety?

The causes of anxiety can be related to environmental factors such as elements in the life of individuals that have the ability to increase anxiety such as personal relationships, job-related stressful situations or financial problems.

Everyone experiences anxiety in their own way and everyone can have different anxiety triggers.

Is anxiety a mental illness?

Anxiety is categorized as a mental illness when it surpasses the normal threshold.

Meaning, feeling anxiety from time to time doesn’t make it a mental illness.

When the feeling is too intense, overwhelming, disabling or has the power to impact our lives negatively then we can talk about anxiety as a mental illness. 

Recommended reading

  1. State-trait anxiety inventory for adults: Sampler set : manual, test, scoring key
  2. State-trait anxiety inventory for children: ( ” how I feel questionnaire ” )
  3. Manual for the state/trait anxiety inventory (form Y): self evaluation questionnaire
  4. STAIC preliminary manual for the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Children ( ” How I Feel Questionnaire ” ) 
  5. State-Trait anxiety inventory (Form Y)

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References 

American Psychological Association: The State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI)

State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Adults: Manual, Instrument and scoring guide

Wiedemann, K. (2001) Anxiety and Anxiety disorders. International Encyclopedia of the Social and behavioral sciences.

Gidron Y. (2013) Trait Anxiety. In: Gellman M.D., Turner J.R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine. Springer, New York, NY

MacArthur Foundation

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