Background: Anxiety scales may help primary care physicians to detect specific anxiety disorders among the many emotionally distressed patients presenting in primary care. The anxiety scale of the Four-Dimensional Symptom Questionnaire (4DSQ) consists of an admixture of symptoms of specific anxiety disorders. The research questions were: (1) Is the anxiety scale unidimensional or multidimensional? (2) To what extent does the anxiety scale detect specific DSM-IV anxiety disorders? (3) Which cut-off points are suitable to rule out or to rule in (which) anxiety disorders?Methods: We analyzed 5 primary care datasets with standardized psychiatric diagnoses and 4DSQ scores. Unidimensionality was assessed through confirmatory factor analysis (CFA). We examined mean scores and anxiety score distributions per disorder. Receiver operating characteristic (ROC) analysis was used to determine optimal cut-off points. Results: Total n was 969. CFA supported unidimensionality. The anxiety scale performed slightly better in detecting patients with panic disorder, agoraphobia, social phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and specific phobia. ROC-analysis suggested that ≥4 was the optimal cut-off point to rule out and ≥10 the cut-off point to rule in anxiety disorders. Conclusions: The 4DSQ anxiety scale measures a common trait of pathological anxiety that is characteristic of anxiety disorders, in particular panic disorder, agoraphobia, social phobia, OCD and PTSD. The anxiety score detects the latter anxiety disorders to a slightly greater extent than GAD and specific phobia, without being able to distinguish between the different anxiety disorder types. The cut-off points ≥4 and ≥10 can be used to separate distressed patients in three groups with a relatively low, moderate and high probability of having one or more anxiety disorders. © 2014 Terluin et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.