In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is neuroticism.
Neuroticism is a personality trait that’s part of the Big Five model of personality. It involves:
… the tendency to experience frequent, intense negative emotions associated with a sense of uncontrollability (the perception of inadequate coping) in response to stress.Barlow et al., 2014
It’s worth mentioning that it’s not the same thing as the neurosis that Freud talked about.
These negative emotions may include anger, anxiety, self-consciousness, guilt, irritability, and depression. People who are neurotic are more likely to interpret situations as unsafe or threatening even when they’re not, and they tend to be vigilant against potential sources of harm. Since this is a personality trait rather than a disorder, it’s not the same intensity of hypervigilance as one might experience in PTSD, for example.
Neurotic individuals are often tense and emotionally labile (i.e. experiencing rapidly fluctuating emotions), and they can be easily overwhelmed by frustrations. They’re likely to feel dissatisfied with both themselves and life in general. They’re more likely to use withdrawal and mental role-play as coping strategies rather than engaging in constructive problem-solving. They’re introspective, seeking to understand their inner experiences.
Neuroticism isn’t an all-or-nothing trait; people may have varying degrees of it. It’s partially heritable, accounting for about 40-60% of the variability in the occurrence of this trait. A study published in Nature Genetics identified 599 different genes that may be involved. An overactive limbic system in the brain may play a role. The HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, which controls the stress response, has also been implicated.
A link has been observed between neuroticism and an external locus of control, which is the perception that factors outside the self control outcomes. This makes coping with stressors difficult, as they’re perceived to be uncontrollable, which leads to frustration and overwhelm.
Parenting may play an indirect role, including by influencing the development of perceptions of control. Overprotective helicopter parenting, for example, decreases a child’s sense of internal control.
Introverts are more likely to be neurotic, but extroverts can be as well. A Scientific American writer/psychologist who identifies as a neurotic extravert describes having an “overactive neurotic imagination that constantly computes all of the possible ways something could go wrong in the future. It’s as if the neurotic brain was designed by a Jewish Mother” (and yes, if the author’s last name is any indication, he’s Jewish).
It appears that high levels of intelligence can help to offset some of the psychological distress associated with neuroticism, although such a link hasn’t been seen between intelligence and major depression, which is often associated with neuroticism. That would suggest that intelligence can help with managing personality trait-related difficulties, but not difficulties that are pathological in extent.
People with high levels of neuroticism are more likely to experience a number of different mental illnesses, including anxiety, mood disorders, eating disorders, OCD, and addictions. Episodes of illness may be triggered by a combination of the underlying vulnerability from neuroticism and a situational stressor. In a Dutch study, among people with the top 5% of neuroticism scores, 40% had a mood disorder and 60% had experienced some form of mental disorder in the past year.
Neuroticism can also increase the risk for physical disorders, including asthma, eczema, and irritable bowel syndrome. Neurotic individuals may be quicker to seek out medical attention, since they’re quite in tune with their inner experiences and notice when something’s off.
The Dutch study mentioned already examined the economic costs associated with neuroticism. For the subset of the population with the top 5% of neuroticism scores, the per capita annual costs were determined to be over 12,000 USD. This was based on cost to the health care system, medical costs borne by patients, and productivity losses from absenteeism.
What to do about it
There are neuroticism-specific measurement scales, but it can also be measured using Big Five personality trait tests. The International Personality Item Pool has a free Big Five test, the IPIP-NEO, available in a short and a full-length online test. The IPIP-NEO neuroticism score is broken down into into six facets: anxiety, anger, depression, self-consciousness, immoderation, and vulnerability.
Neuroticism is a trait, not an illness, so there isn’t a treatment for it per se. However, interventions may help to minimize negative consequences. Serotonin appears to play a role, and SSRI antidepressants may help to reduce levels of neuroticism. Building coping skills aside from withdrawal/avoidance may also be helpful, and as already mentioned, helicopter parenting isn’t setting a child up for good things.
Is this something that you see aspects of in your own personality or in people you know?
- Barlow, D. H., Ellard, K. K., Sauer-Zavala, S., Bullis, J. R., & Carl, J. R. (2014). The origins of neuroticism. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(5), 481-496.
- Britannica: Neuroticism
- Cuijpers, P., Smit, F., Penninx, B. W., de Graaf, R., ten Have, M., & Beekman, A. T. (2010). Economic costs of neuroticism: a population-based study. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67(10), 1086-1093.
- Navrady, L. B., Ritchie, S. J., Chan, S. W., Kerr, D. M., Adams, M. J., Hawkins, E. H., … & McIntosh, A. M. (2017). Intelligence and neuroticism in relation to depression and psychological distress: Evidence from two large population cohorts. European Psychiatry, 43, 58-65.
- Scientific American: Confessions of a Neurotic Extravert
- Widiger, T. A., & Oltmanns, J. R. (2017). Neuroticism is a fundamental domain of personality with enormous public health implications. World Psychiatry, 16(2), 144.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.