What Is... Psychology Series

What Is… Neuroticism

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 is 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 with high levels of neuroticism 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.

Measuring neuroticism

There are a number of tests that measure neuroticism.  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 called IPIP-NEO, available in a short a 120-item version and a full-length 300-item 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 my depression was in full remission.  I often found myself trying to answer somewhere in the middle between how I feel/think now and how I felt/thought when I was well.  What I ended up with was a neuroticism score that was classified as low overall.  When I’m well, I tend to be happy and don’t experience a lot of anxiety, guilt, frustration, and other kinds of 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?


Psychology resources: What Is insights into psychology series and psychological tests

The what is… series directory contains all of the terms that have been covered in the series thus far.

You can also find a collection of scientifically psychological tests here.

14 thoughts on “What Is… Neuroticism”

  1. I’m certain I have traits of neuroticism whether well or unwell, like you they are definitely magnified with the severity of depression.

    1. Yeah depression definitely seems magnify a lot of our little quirks in various aspects of our personalities that don’t necessarily stand out prominently when we’re well.

  2. I’m curious, when you took those inventories, were you rating symptoms within a specific time-period? If so, I wonder how sensitive that time period was to your changing moods. For me, my moods change rapidly, but for others it might be much more gradual. This could make neuroticism difficult to measure reliably for anyone. Although I’m sure my score would still be quite high!

    1. I think I was being inconsistent even within any given test in terms of time frame I was looking at. I don’t tend to have rapid high intensity mood shifts; I’ll wallow for a period of time with a particular emotion being prominent, and then it can be hard to remember what the last emotional phase I wallowed in felt like.

  3. I think I’m very neurotic even when well. But as I’ve been depressed for most of the last fifteen or twenty years, it’s hard to tell. But I think I was quite an anxious and withdrawn child from about the age of four or so.

  4. “They tend to be relatively stable across the lifetime, although neuroticism tends to decrease as adults age.” Yeah, my dad thinks I’m less neurotic than I used to be!! I took a test online at some psychology website and it said I’m about 42% neurotic, 58% non-neurotic. I guess I can live with that!

    moodiness–definitely of a hormonal nature
    anger–no, but this used to be a HUGE issue for a long time
    jealousy–not really
    guilt–no, but I live in fear of guilt, if that makes sense.
    depressed mood–no
    loneliness–yeah, this has been a huge theme in my life.
    self-conscious–off the charts, yes.
    perceive situations as threatening–all the time, especially and particularly social settings.
    feel hopeless when faced with minor frustrations–it depends
    difficulty with impulse control and delayed gratification–oh geez, major issue. Again, pass the potato chips!

  5. I am curious to know is there any connection between bad gut health and neuroticism ? Does serotonin or some other hormones play some role in this? Thanks a lot for this information, cureandjoy.com

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