In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is neuroticism.
According to Wikipedia, neuroticism is “the tendency to experience negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or depression” and is associated with “low tolerance for stress or aversive stimuli”. It is similar to, but not the same, as the Freudian concept of neurosis. It’s one of the “big five” higher order personality traits (along with openness, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness).
Both heredity and environmental factors can influence these traits. They tend to be relatively stable across the lifetime, although neuroticism tends to decrease as adults age.
Impact of neuroticism
People who are more neurotic are more prone to moodiness, anxiety, worry, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, depressed mood, and loneliness. They tend to be self-conscious, perceive situations as threatening, feel hopeless when faced with minor frustrations, and have difficulty with impulse control and delayed gratification.
Neuroticism is also associated with increased risk of common mental disorders such as mood, anxiety, and eating disorders.
There are a number of relevant psychological tests. Many of these are self-report questionnaires, and the tests may involve self-descriptive sentences or single word adjectives. The International Personality Item Pool has a free test, IPIP-NEO, available in a short and a full-length online test. The IPIP-NEO breaks down the neuroticism score into six facets: anxiety, anger, depression, self-consciousness, immoderation, and vulnerability.
Separating out effects of mental illness
I did the IPIP-NEO short version, and I noticed there were a lot of questions I would have answered differently if I wasn’t depressed. I found myself trying to answer somewhere in between how I feel/think now vs. when I was well. My score was low overall. When I’m well, I tend to be happy and don’t experience a lot of anxiety, guilt, frustration, and other distressing emotions. Yet these “negative” emotions are quite pervasive in my illness landscape.
I guess it’s important to keep in mind that who I am when I’m depressed is not who I am full stop, and symptoms of illness are not personality traits, even though it can feel like they start to define who we are. Even though they’re not really designed for that purpose, doing tests like the IPIP-NEO can help remind me of that.
What are your thoughts on neuroticism?
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.