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Neuroticism is a personality trait which is believed to be associated with emotional instability. Someone with neurotic traits would worry about a lot of things, are highly critical, and may be somewhat anxious.
The word ‘neurotic’ dates back to Freud (1924), who described neurotic anxiety. This, he claimed, is generated when an individual’s defense mechanisms are no longer able to successfully repress an early traumatic experience, resulting in a persistent state of distress.
The label neuroticism was believed to be first coined by Eysenck (1947) to describe the personality trait. People with anxiety, depression, and related disorders at the time were commonly given the label of having ‘neurosis’.
Eysenck wanted to use a more neutral label which he believed would be preferable to those with these mental health conditions. Despite this, Eysenck agreed that individuals with the diagnosis of neurosis had extreme levels of the personality trait neuroticism.
He claimed that those with high levels of neuroticism require little life stress to trigger neurosis compared to those without high neuroticism levels.
Eysenck’s (1961, 1981) influential theory led to the development of the Big Three personality traits. He claimed that all individuals fall into three dimensions of personality: extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism.
He based his theory on variations in the levels of cortical activation and autonomic nervous system reactivity that individuals have. He suggested that extraversion, or positive emotion, is associated with moderate levels of arousal, whereas neuroticism, or negative emotion, is associated with under or overarousal.
Neuroticism has thus come to be known as the trait reflecting emotional stability or the tendency to become easily aroused, or upset and worried, when stimulated.
McCrae and Costa (1987), among others have later described neuroticism as a negative personality trait involving the tendency to experience frequent negative emotions, maladjustment, poor ability to manage urges, trouble dealing with stress, and a strong reaction to perceived threats.
McCrae and Costa developed the popular personality theory of the Big Five which includes five personality trait dimensions: extraversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
Within the Big Five dimension, the researchers describe facets of each trait to further specify them. They define 6 facets of neuroticism which can help identify people who are prone to psychological distress:
Anxiety – the level of anxiety someone has. How frequent and how easily someone feels anxious.
Anger/hostility – the tendency to feel anger, frustration, or bitterness.
Depression – the tendency to feel guilt, loneliness, and low mood.
Self-consciousness – how easily someone experiences social anxiety or extreme shyness.
Impulsiveness – the tendency to give in to cravings and the ability to delay gratification.
Vulnerability – how well someone can handle stress.
Neuroticism is generally measured using self-report questionnaires as part of a personality assessment. The Big Five personality test is still commonly used in much research today.
In these personality tests, people can rate how much they relate to statements, such as ‘I worry about things’ and ‘I am relaxed most of the time’.
Through these questionnaires, people can see how they fall on the personality trait dimensions.
As neuroticism is a dimension and not a diagnosis, the prevalence rate of neurotic personality traits are not reported as they are for diagnosable mental health disorders.
Common neurotic traits
People who score highly on neuroticism may experience some of the following traits:
A tendency towards negative emotions
Poor emotional stability – emotionally reactive
Overly critical of the self
Self-conscious or shy
Often sad, moody, or depressed
Easily stressed -unable to handle stress well
Experience mood swings
Lack of resilience
Chronic worrying about a variety of things
Tendency to interpret neutral situations as threatening
Feeling overwhelmed by minor problems
Become jealous easily
Feel frustrated and angry about everyday occurrences
Feelings of fear or guilt over minor things
May be seen as overreacting
Some of the behaviors of people high on neuroticism can include the following:
Panicking in non-threatening situations – if the fight-or-flight response system kicks in when there is nothing threatening in the environment, it is likely that neuroticism is prompting this panic.
Likely to display more road rage – over the top anger at minor mistakes on the road could be a sign of neurotic behavior.
Overly protective of their child’s health and safety – whilst it is normal for parents to worry for their child’s safety, those who are neurotic may overly worry about their child’s health, may prevent them from doing anything that presents with any risks or take them to a medical professional over any minor health concern.
Strive for perfection – those who are neurotic may spend more time than necessary completing tasks because they are determined to avoid making mistakes.
Overly-dependant – people who are neurotic may depend on others to meet their needs rather than doing things themselves. They may overly complain about their problems in the hopes that someone else will solve them.
Neuroticism and Mental Health
Although neuroticism is a dimension of normal personality, high neuroticism scores can be found in, or make someone more vulnerable to, mental health conditions.
High neuroticism scores in individuals have consistently found to be a risk factor for a wide range of mental disorders such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, schizophrenia, posttraumatic stress disorder, and personality disorders (Zhang, 2020).
Another study investigated the relationship between neuroticism and mental traits, finding significant relationships with insomnia, loneliness, anorexia nervosa, subjective well-being, among other mental health disorders (Zhang, 2021).
It seems increasingly apparent that most psychological disorders are associated with elevated levels of neuroticism. These links may be unsurprising given that emotional distress is one of the defining criteria of both neuroticism and psychological disorders.
Neuroticism appears to be particularly strongly related to conditions that contain a prominent component of subjective distress. This may be why the trait has strong associations with major depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.
Studies have looked at the trait of extraversion alongside neuroticism and found that these two traits can play a part in the onset and maintenance of anxiety, depressive, and related disorders (Brown and Barlow, 2009; Griffith et al., 2010).
Specifically, it appears to be that the combination of high neuroticism levels with low extraversion seems to play an important role in the emergence of some mental health conditions.
This was found in a study by Gershuny and Sher (1998) who found that individuals with low extraversion and high neuroticism were more at risk of developing anxiety later in life.
Studies have documented that those high on neuroticism are more at risk of psychopathology following exposure to stressful life events than those who score low on neuroticism.
Also, those who score high on neuroticism predicted later life mental health conditions (van Os & Jones, 1999).
It is suggested that the well-documented relationship between neuroticism and depression is mediated by individual differences in the use of different emotion regulation strategies.
Specifically, maladaptive forms of emotion regulation facilitate the association between neuroticism and the severity of depressive symptoms (Yoon, Maltby, & Joorman, 2012).
There is also some evidence that highly neurotic people who have depression may benefit more from positive life changes than those low in neuroticism.
Oldehinkel et al., 2000 found that in depressed patients who were followed for 3.5 years that neuroticism enhanced the effect of positive life events. The capacity for positive events to bring remission forward was found to be three times stronger for highly neurotic individuals.
How Neuroticism Can Affect Behavior
People who score highly on neuroticism may find that this trait influences their behavior in positive and negative ways.
Since people with neuroticism tend to pay more attention to negative outcomes or risks, this trait could be beneficial for these individuals to succeed or survive.
Having sensitivity to threats over the course of human evolution has helped the species to survive, thus partaking in less risky behaviors due to a focus on negative outcomes can be a good thing for many.
Regret is a common feeling those with neuroticism have. Feeling regretful can help many people to learn from their mistakes and to alter future behavior. This contrasts with those who may not feel regretful and continue with their behaviors that others may dislike.
Those with neurotic personality also tend to be more intelligent, humorous, have greater self-awareness, and drive, especially if they also score highly on conscientiousness alongside neuroticism.
They may be more likely to be reflective on their actions and be more creative thinker than those who score low on neuroticism.
People high in neuroticism tend to view things in a more critical or accurate way, compared to those low on neuroticism who may view things too optimistically or unrealistically.
Although this comes with the risks of viewing things too negatively, being able to have realistic expectations can be beneficial to avoid disappointment.
Likewise, neurotic individuals can possess more emotional depth since they have more experience handling negative emotions. This can mean they may have a lot of empathy and understanding for other people’s struggles.
On the other hand, there are many negative effects that can come from high levels of neuroticism. As previously discussed, if the negative feelings of neuroticism get out of control, this can result in mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.
They may also respond to stressful situations in a more negative way such as getting angrier or more upset than those who are not neurotic.
Being highly neurotic can have a negative affect at work for many people. Whilst they may be really good at their job, they may also tend to worry a lot about their performance.
Similarly, if someone who is highly neurotic receives some negative feedback from a boss or co-worker, no matter how small, the effects can feel devastating for the individual.
They may respond by worrying about their performance more, to the point where they are consumed with self-evaluation and anxiety that they cannot focus on the work. They may even avoid work altogether, in the end creating self-fulfilling prophecies for themselves.
Whilst extreme, this maladaptive response can lead to difficulties in keeping jobs, decreased satisfaction with life, and sometimes even decreased life expectancy.
How Neuroticism Can Affect Relationships
Those who score highly on neuroticism tend to, on average, have worse ratings of relationships satisfaction. People who have relationships with those high in neuroticism may report that they are not easy to be around.
Those who are neurotic may tend to complain a lot, be critical of themselves and others, constantly seek reassurance, be overly dependent on others, and may appear very dramatic. Over time, this can wear down those who know the individual and get to the point of being frustrating for them.
People who are neurotic may also pass on their neurotic tendencies to those around them. This may especially be the case for children of parents who are neurotic. The parent may unintentionally pass on their worries to their child so that the child learns to be more fearful.
Being high in neuroticism could also result in more conflicts with others, due to their over-critical nature for instance. Moreover, if minor inconveniences can push neurotic people over the edge, they may yell or become angry at people they feel have caused them stress. Some people who are neurotic may also accuse others of doing things without any evidence to back this up.
To others, neurotic people may appear unreliable if they cannot regulate their emotions. If others cannot rely on these individuals to be stable, they may be avoided or not offered more job promotions or opportunities compared to someone who seems to know how to control their emotions.
The negative beliefs that highly neurotic people may have about themselves may lead to ineffective social functioning which then confirms the negative beliefs they have, further re-enforcing neurotic tendencies. This then becomes a vicious cycle of neuroticism and social relationships.
Research by Du et al., (2021) suggested that highly neurotic individuals are likely to encounter various types of interpersonal difficulties in general. Specifically, these problems, they claim, fall into three broad areas, each defined by different facets of neuroticism:
Anxiety and self-consciousness : people high in this facet of neuroticism tend to be overly obedient and non-assertive.
Anger : people high in this facet find that they constant anger leads to problems of being too cold-hearted and vindictive.
Depression : people high in this facet of neuroticism tend to avoid social interactions.
Being able to break down neuroticism into its components and seeing how each of these relate to specific interpersonal behaviors makes it possible to see what can make like difficult for neurotic people.
Coping With Neuroticism
For people who are neurotic, it can feel as if they are trapped by their maladaptive thought patterns. Personality traits tend to be stable during the lifetime therefore neuroticism can reduce to some degree, but it may always be present.
Some research suggests that sometimes, especially after a major life event, neuroticism can naturally decline over time. To cope with neuroticism, it is more about changing the behaviors rather than the personality trait itself.
There are some ways in which to cope with neuroticism such as practicing mindfulness . Studies show that mindfulness can reduce how often negative thoughts occur and it can increase one’s ability to let go of these thoughts.
Taking a step back from stressful or upsetting situations and thinking about what is causing the negative feelings when they happen can prevent some of the automatic neurotic patterns of thinking.
Asking questions such as ‘What am I thinking?’ How am I feeling? How am I responding?’ can make it easier to take a broader perspective of the situation.
In situations where neurotic feelings and behaviors can take over, it can be useful to simply take some deep breaths to calm down. Breathing exercises can help to create some distance from the intensity of the experience and may help people to realize that their reaction was out of proportion to the situation itself.
Taking deep breaths can also biologically help to calm down the autonomic nervous system before it gets into fight-or-flight.
Some other lifestyle methods to try for people who are neurotic can be to engage in physical activity or exercise to help them to burn off any negative emotions they may be facing.
Also, avoiding substances such as alcohol and drugs can also help since neurotic people are more vulnerable to being dependent on substances.
Therapeutic methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy ( CBT ) can also be useful for addressing ways to react in more balanced ways to stressors.
CBT involves working with a therapist to address and challenge negative thought patterns and behaviors. CBT is generally effective in addressing the specific symptoms of mental health conditions that may result alongside high neuroticism, but it may not reduce the general predisposition features of neuroticism.
This means that even after CBT, individuals may still be susceptible to other mental health conditions, although learning how to manage worries and negative thoughts through CBT can be a useful tool for reducing the severity of mental health conditions.
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