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Neuroticism

Last Updated: February 3, 2024

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Neuroticism is a term frequently encountered in psychology, representing one of the core aspects of personality within the Five Factor Model (FFM).

This model includes other personality traits like extraversion, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness.

Neuroticism - What it is

While widely accepted, the FFM is only one of many theories in psychology. Interpretations and measurements of personality traits (sometimes referred to as personality characteristics) can vary among researchers and theories, which offer diverse perspectives on behavior and emotions.

Consider facing a difficult situation–maybe a tight deadline at work or a disagreement with a loved one. If feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, or persistent negative thoughts arise, these may be indicators of neurotic tendencies.

The research underscores the link between higher neuroticism and mental health challenges, including anxiety, eating disorders, and mood disorders like depression. Those with high neuroticism scores may be susceptible to negative emotions, excessive worrying, or emotional dysregulation. Understanding these tendencies can be the first step in addressing them.

Six Core Facets of Neuroticism

According to the FFM, the core facets of neuroticism are:

  • Anxiety: Overwhelming worry about everyday situations, impacting decision-making ability and leading to elevated stress levels.
  • Angry hostility: Frequent feelings of anger, irritability, and hostility towards others, often perceiving slights or criticisms where none are intended.
  • Depression: A propensity for experiencing prolonged periods of sadness, hopelessness, and despair, which can significantly affect daily functioning and quality of life.
  • Self-consciousness: Highly self-aware and self-conscious, often dwelling on perceived flaws or shortcomings and feeling insecure in social situations.
  • Impulsiveness: A lack of impulse control, making decisions without considering potential consequences.
  • Vulnerability: Vulnerability to stressors and adverse life events often manifests as negative emotionality, encompassing heightened emotional reactivity and difficulty coping with adversity.

What Causes Neuroticism?

Neuroticism is believed to stem from an interaction of genetic, biological, and environmental factors.

Genetics

Research indicates that neuroticism is heritable, similar to traits like intelligence and height. Twin studies demonstrate that approximately 48% of phenotypic variance (how neuroticism is perceived) can be attributed to genetic effects.

Childhood Trauma

Experiences during formative years play a crucial role, with childhood trauma significantly contributing to developing neurotic behaviors and negative emotions.

“It is important that we and the public not confuse high sensitivity with “neuroticism,” which includes certain types of intense anxiety, depression, overattachment, or avoidance of intimacy, and are usually due to a troubled childhood. True, some of us were dealt both hands in life—high sensitivity and neuroticism—but the two things are not the same.” Elaine N. Aron, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You.

Brain Function

Individual differences in brain function, particularly heightened reactivity in brain areas related to emotional processing, can affect how someone perceives and reacts to their environment. In simple terms, neuroticism makes certain parts of our brains work harder when dealing with emotions. This can make negative emotions feel more intense.

Comorbidities

Neuroticism is often correlated with a broader range of mental health issues and negative physical health outcomes.

Research suggests a strong association between neuroticism and mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety disorders.

Individuals with elevated neuroticism levels often face a greater risk of experiencing depressive episodes and emotional instability.

This propensity for negative emotion and more negative feelings can significantly impact one's overall well-being and quality of life.

How is Neuroticism Measured

Neuroticism, one of the five major dimensions of personality in the Five Factor Model, is typically measured through a general personality test that evaluates several traits or specific tests that focus on individual aspects of neuroticism, such as depression or anxiety.

Some available personality tests include:

  • NEO Personality Inventory: This is a psychological personality inventory, a part of the Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R). It measures neuroticism and the other four personality traits: extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. The neuroticism section usually contains questions that assess anxiety, anger, depression, self-consciousness, immoderation, and vulnerability.
  • Big Five Inventory (BFI): This test is shorter than the NEO PI-R but still effectively measures the five big personality traits, including neuroticism. It uses a series of statements that respondents rate according to how much they agree or disagree.
  • Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ): Developed by Hans Eysenck, this questionnaire measures three major dimensions of personality: extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism. The neuroticism scale measures emotional stability and levels of anxiety.

Clinical assessments, interviews, and peer reports can also measure neuroticism, especially in research settings.

However, self-report questionnaires are the most widely used method due to their efficiency and ease of administration.

How Neuroticism Influences Relationships

Neuroticism plays a significant role in shaping the dynamics within relationships, impacting factors such as relationship quality, stability, and conflict resolution.

People with increased neuroticism levels and neurotic behavior may struggle to understand their partner's love language, such as acts of service, words of affirmation, gifts, quality time, and physical touch, as described in Gary Chapman's theory.

For those of us with high levels of neuroticism, we may find ourselves interpreting our partner’s words and actions through a different lens, which can make it challenging to express our needs and emotions effectively. Despite our best intentions, this can create obstacles in building a deeper emotional connection with our partner.

Frequent mood swings, another hallmark of neuroticism, can also affect our experiences of love and intimacy within the relationship. These fluctuations in mood may contribute to feelings of uncertainty and instability, impacting the emotional well-being of both partners.

Furthermore, individuals high in neuroticism may engage in validation-seeking behaviors, often seeking reassurance and attention from their partner to validate their love and commitment. While this desire for reassurance is understandable, it can sometimes lead to tension within the relationship as we navigate our emotional landscape while seeking validation from our partner.

Additionally, high levels of neurotic trait anxiety can influence how we perceive and interpret ordinary situations, potentially leading to unnecessary tensions and misunderstandings.

“In any partnership, it is important to remember that we all have our quirks and insecurities. By showing understanding, love, and respect for each other’s tender spots, we can have solid and healthy connections that endure life’s challenges.” – adapted from John M. Gottman’sThe Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work

The Impact of Neuroticism in Everyday Life

In everyday life, neuroticism exists, extending beyond our relationships and influencing every aspect of daily living, including work, decision-making, and regular interactions.

Workplace

High levels of neuroticism can affect workplace performance and dynamics, creating stress, fostering negative responses to criticism, and complicating interactions with colleagues.

This personality trait can compromise focus, task completion, and productivity, potentially stifling career advancement.

Decision-making

Neuroticism can make it challenging to make decisions, leading to procrastination and feeling overwhelmed by potential negative outcomes.
This excessive contemplation of possible scenarios can hinder constructive decision-making and problem-solving, focusing more on risks than opportunities.

Everyday Interactions

Even casual encounters can become sources of stress for those with high levels of neuroticism, turning innocuous comments or actions into perceived threats or negativity, potentially leading to misunderstandings and strained social connections.

Handling Frustrations

Minor inconveniences can provoke intense, disproportionate emotional responses in neurotic individuals, impacting their mood and behavior substantially throughout the day.

Lifestyle Choices

Neuroticism may influence behavior, either prompting overly cautious or risky lifestyles, potentially limiting personal growth and life satisfaction due to the avoidance of potentially rewarding experiences. They might also be prone to substance abuse, such as drugs or alcohol.

Overall Well-being

The pervasive effects of neuroticism on various life aspects can impair overall well-being and mental health, instigating a cascade of other negative feelings and emotions, unhealthy lifestyle choices, and stress, which, in turn, can spiral into more severe physical and mental illnesses and health concerns.

Recognizing neuroticism’s extensive influence is vital for mitigating its adverse effects on daily life and fostering a more balanced, fulfilling existence.

How to Cope with Neuroticism

Addressing neuroticism involves adopting various coping mechanisms and lifestyle changes aimed at improving emotional stability and reducing negative emotions. These include:

  • Practice mindfulness. Focusing on the present moment and accepting thoughts and feelings without judgment can aid in reducing anxiety and stress associated with neuroticism.
  • Try therapy. Professional mental health counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy can help individuals understand and manage their neurotic behaviors and thoughts, offering techniques to deal with generalized anxiety disorder, stress, and negative emotions.
  • Work on your emotional intelligence. Understanding and managing emotions effectively can lead to improved relationships and mental well-being, helping counteract the negative effects of neuroticism.
  • Reduce stress. Identifying and addressing stressors, engaging in relaxation techniques, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can mitigate the impact of neuroticism on mental health and relationships.

Understanding and managing neuroticism is crucial for maintaining emotional stability, cultivating positive relationships, using  positive thinking, learning emotional regulation skills, and enhancing overall well-being.

“Allowing means “letting be” the thoughts, emotions, feelings or sensations you discover. You may feel a natural sense of aversion, of wishing that unpleasant feelings would go away, but as you become more willing to be present with “what is,” a different quality of attention will emerge. Allowing is intrinsic to healing, and realizing this can give rise to a conscious intention to “let be.”Tara Brach, Working With Difficulties: The Blessings of RAIN

By adopting suitable coping mechanisms and strategies, individuals can mitigate the impact of neuroticism, fostering a healthier, more balanced lifestyle.

Frequently Asked Questions about Neuroticism

Is neuroticism a mental disorder?

Neuroticism is not a mental health disorder but a personality trait associated with the experience of negative emotions and emotional instability.

However, high levels of neuroticism can be correlated with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, emphasizing its public health implications.

Can you change levels of neuroticism?

While neuroticism has a genetic component, interventions like therapy, mindfulness, and stress reduction can contribute to changes in neurotic behaviors and help manage its impact on life and well-being, fostering personal growth and positive development.

How does high neuroticism affect one's life?

High neuroticism can lead to a greater likelihood of experiencing negative emotions, stress, and mental health issues, disrupting relationships, work, and overall quality of life. It can affect how individuals perceive and interpret environmental influences.

References

Neuroticism - Wikipedia

Public Health Significance of Neuroticism

Childhood Trauma and Neuroticism as an Adult

Psychology Today - Neuroticism

Neuroticism facets and mortality risk in adulthood: A systematic review and narrative synthesis

Genetic contributions to two special factors of neuroticism are associated with affluence, higher intelligence, better health, and longer life

Disclaimer

The contents of this article are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It is always recommended to consult with a qualified healthcare provider before making any health-related changes or if you have any questions or concerns about your health. Anahana is not liable for any errors, omissions, or consequences that may occur from using the information provided.

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