6 Min Read

What Is Neuroticism?

Jaclyn Lopez Witmer, Psy.D.

Everyone feels anxious from time to time. You might feel a knot in your stomach before a date, stress about finances, or panic before a job interview—it’s a normal part of being human.

But when extreme anxiety doesn’t go away, negative and unwanted thoughts can take control of your mind, making it difficult to function in everyday life. In some cases, this type of behavior, called neurotic behavior, can stem from a mental health condition. Because personality traits exist on a spectrum, some people may be more prone to neuroticism than others. 

Neuroticism defined

Neuroticism describes one of the Big 5 personality traits, along with extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. Neuroticism is characterized by a tendency toward anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions, according to experts McCrae, Costa, and Goldberg. 

Measuring neuroticism involves using self-report personality inventories and questionnaires. These methods of measurement ask individuals to rate the extent that they worry, are easily irritated, have mood swings, feel negative emotions, and experience low self-esteem, among other related factors.

People with higher neuroticism are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems such as anxiety disorders (i.e., phobias and panic disorder), mood disorders (i.e., bipolar disorder and major depression), personality disorders, somatoform disorders, high cortisol levels, and other unfavorable social and emotional outcomes.

How typical is neuroticism?

Like other traits in the five-factor personality model, neuroticism is typically measured with self-report questionnaires as part of a personality test. Sometimes, measuring neurotic behaviors involves asking other people, such as close friends and family members, about an individual’s traits.

Because neuroticism is a dimension and not a mental health disorder, the prevalence rates of neurotic personality traits for the general population are unknown.

In a 2007 study on individual differences in the five-factor personality model by Costa et al., high neuroticism scores were found among older adults, whereas young adults had low neuroticism scores. In the study, Costa and colleagues also found gender differences with U.S. adult women reporting higher neuroticism scores than men. 

Multiple analyses of psychopathology provide explanations for the association of neuroticism with gender differences. According to a meta-analysis of genome-wide association studies conducted as part of the Genetics of Personality Consortium, the Big 5 personality traits are genetically based, species-invariant, and the result of adaptation to selection pressures, which vary between gender.

Common Neurotic Personality Traits

Because neuroticism exists on a scale, personality traits among neurotic individuals can vary widely. According to a study by Eysenck et al., people with higher levels of neuroticism compared to baseline tend to show the following traits:

  • A tendency toward negative emotions
  • Low emotional stability and negative emotionality
  • Feelings of self-doubt, shyness, and lower self-esteem
  • Feelings of anxiety or irritability
  • Sadness or depression
  • Easily stressed or upset, with an increased vulnerability to stress
  • Dramatic mood swings and negative affectivity
  • A lack of resilience or struggling to bounce back after adversity
  • A tendency to interpret minor problems as overwhelming
  • Perceived lack of reliability of others
  • Difficulties controlling urges and emotion processing

Additionally, well-being is significantly influenced by the Big 5 personality traits. In a twin study on personality, genetics, and life satisfaction, neuroticism and extraversion accounted for 24% of reported life satisfaction.

What causes neuroticism?

Neurotic behavior appears to be universal across all cultures, meaning it likely has biological origins. Some social psychology researchers argue that neuroticism may have an evolutionary explanation. Hypersensitivity to potential dangers or threats could offer a survival advantage. 

Evidence also exists that high levels of neuroticism may be linked with the startle reflex, which is a response to loud noise. In other words, individuals higher on neuroticism scales may have a genetic predisposition to react more strongly to external stimuli naturally.

Several variables are predictors of neurotic behavior. According to a study in the Journal of Personality, neuroticism typically begins in childhood and presents itself in adolescence or early adulthood. Some of the risk factors for developing neuroticism include:

  • Stressors in childhood or adolescence, such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. There may also be more common occurrences, such as having overbearing parents or parents with a mental disorder, such as substance use disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia.
  • High present stress index. High levels of stress also play a role in neuroticism. A neurotic person might be predisposed to neuroticism but never show symptoms until faced with stress. When stress levels are lower, neuroticism can disappear.
  • Heritability, genetics, and environmental influences. When a neurotic parent raises a child, their behaviors can be learned. However, there’s also evidence that the predisposition for neuroticism may have a genetic correlation.

How to Cope With Neuroticism

It’s easy for individuals with a high neuroticism score to feel trapped by problematic thought patterns and struggle with feelings of depression and anxiety. However, research suggests that personality traits are not set in stone and can change throughout one’s lifetime, particularly after a significant life event, such as getting married or having children. 

Make time for self-care.

When dealing with negative emotions, it’s easy to get so caught up that you forget to tend to your own needs, which can leave you feeling drained, stressed, and overwhelmed. Self-care involves carving some time out of your schedule to have a moment that’s just for you, allowing your mind to relax.

When it comes to taking care of your mind, self-care can help you cope better with life’s stressors and the emotional strains of whatever life throws at you. When you’re more resilient, you can bounce back quicker from adversity, reducing your risk of stress, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Self-care is an investment in your mental health.

Start making a habit of carving out time every day, whether it’s a few minutes or an hour, that’s just for you. Whether you take a bath or go for a walk outside, doing things you enjoy can leave you feeling rejuvenated.

Surround yourself with social support.

Surrounding yourself with supportive, loving relationships can help reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress. People with supportive friends and family members and those who take part in churches, clubs, and volunteer organizations, generally have better mental and physical health—and lower neuroticism scores—than those who lack social networks.

According to a recent study, perceived social support has a significant association with lower rates of major depression in young adults. In other words, respondents reported perceived social support as an essential protection against major depression.

If you’re feeling low, consider reaching out to a close friend or family member via text message, phone call, or video chat to express your feelings. Sometimes, a simple reminder of how much you mean to someone and how much they care about you can help combat negative emotions. According to the National Institutes of Health, social support can even help boost your resilience to stress.

Practice meditation and mindfulness techniques.

Meditation—whether in the form of mindful thinking in a dark, quiet room or with a guided meditation app—is free and therapeutic. Practicing meditation and mindfulness can help you relax and reset, allowing you to better cope with feelings of stress, clear your mind, and tune in with your emotions.

In a 2019 meta-analysis among young adults with high neuroticism scores, researchers found that meditation led to better measures of subjective well-being, life satisfaction, physical health, and other mental health indicators.

Basic meditation involves focusing on your breath, recognizing your thoughts and labeling them, letting go of your thoughts, and returning to your breath. Through meditation, you can learn to concentrate on, identify, and accept your thoughts. With some practice, you can take advantage of meditation and mindfulness when you’re at work, home, or even in the garden.  

Seek professional help.

Sometimes, the adverse effects of stress can spill over into different areas of your life. Even if you respond effectively to your emotions, high levels of stress and neuroticism can interfere with your ability to function in everyday life. This can worsen your physical and mental health and make it difficult to perform at work, home, or other areas of life.

When neuroticism begins to have negative consequences, working with a qualified mental health professional can help you cope. Some signs you may need to seek help for neuroticism include:

  • Frequent conflicts in relationships
  • Inability to experience positive emotions
  • Persistent negative feelings
  • Substance abuse, dependency, or other unhealthy coping mechanisms
  • Thoughts of suicide, death, or self-harm
  • A decline in the ability to eat, sleep, or complete basic daily tasks

Whether you’re struggling to function under high stress or you’re interested in learning healthier coping mechanisms, certain kinds of counseling can help you start feeling better. One specific type of counseling developed to help neurotic people, called the unified protocol, draws from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness, and behavioral interventions to promote emotional regulation.

To get started, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a psychologist, counselor, social worker, or therapist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. One of the licensed psychologists on the WithTherapy platform will help you develop healthy coping mechanisms, challenge unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, and take control of your emotions to improve your quality of life.

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