The stressors we all experience on an everyday basis seem ideally suited to the development of neurotic tendencies. With the 24-hour news cycle, the monthly scramble to make rent, and the simmering level of anxiety across society – a neurotic personality seems almost rational.
What does neurotic mean? Today, the term is thrown around jokingly (“You are so neurotic!”), but neuroticism is actually a personality characteristic with a long history of use within psychology. It’s a unique combination of anxieties, depressive thoughts, and poor emotional stability.
A neurotic definition details patterns of habits, relationships, emotional responses, defenses, and beliefs. According to Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., author of A New Unified Theory of Psychology, “Neurotic habits are automatic or ritualized patterns of overt behavior that people engage in to alleviate anxiety and provide a sense of familiar security.”
In the short- term, these responses are comforting and reduce stress, but over the long-term, psychologists deem them “maladaptive.”
A Few Common Examples of Neuroticism
Because neuroticism comes out in different ways for different people, it’s easiest to define “neurotic” with a few real-world examples:
Neuroticism Example 1:
Every day, Steven makes a 45-minute commute to his office job in the city. Every day Steven complains to his colleagues at work, and later to his partner at home, about the bad drivers he encounters. He talks about drivers cutting him off, slow drivers, fast drivers, and people driving in the HOV lane. His constant complaints, daily road rage, and aggression are all examples of neuroticism.
Neuroticism Example 2:
Andrew is always stressed out. According to his friends, he often freaks out about seemingly benign issues. He is continuously rushing from one thing to the next and has to keep a tight schedule. He is always worried about being late. In the past, he has experienced panic attacks if he gets behind schedule. Andrew’s anxieties and panic attacks are classic examples of a neurotic personality.
Neuroticism Example 3:
Julie believes she has to protect her toddler from many dangers in the world. At the playground, she doesn’t let her child play on the slide because she could hurt herself. She doesn’t let her child leave her sight under any circumstances, and has been called a ‘helicopter parent’ on more than one occasion. Julie’s nervousness about ordinary experiences and inability to allow her child to take normal risks are signs of neurotic behavior.
Neuroticism as a Personality Trait
As per Henriques, “Personality traits are longstanding patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions that tend to stabilize in adulthood and remain relatively fixed.” In psychology, the most robust theory of personality is called the Big-5 or the Five-Factor Model.
This theory, proven time and time again in extensive population studies, describes personality based around five characteristics. Everyone falls on the spectrum of each of the five main character traits.
The characteristics are as follows:
According to the Big-5 theory, everyone’s personality sit’s somewhere between emotional stability and instability or low neuroticism and high neuroticism.
Neurotic personality types tend to dwell on the negative. They are anxious, worried, and obsessive about an ongoing list of concerns. Stress can come from perfectionist tendencies, hostility towards others, or deprecating beliefs.
People who sit on the opposite side of the neurotic spectrum are cool, calm, and collected. They generally have high self-confidence and lower levels of daily stress. If something challenging comes up, they have the emotional capacity to handle it without falling into a state of turmoil.
Over the years, the Big-5 theory of personality has been studied in-depth, and psychologists have assessed a few common features of neuroticism. For one, it has a gender bias. Women are slightly more likely to have neurotic personality traits than men.
Secondly, as we grow older, neurotic tendencies grow less and less. It seems to be a natural tendency to become calmer and less aggravated the older we get. This decline happens for both men and women.
Have You Asked Yourself, “Am I Neurotic?”
Does the neurotic definition outlined above ring true for you? Considering it is one of the Big-5 personality traits, it is not that uncommon to feel neurotic at least sometimes. Arguably, as the instances of anxiety disorders increases, it would also mean neuroticism is on the rise as well.
Neuroticism, to some degree, is a maladaptive protection measure against the world around us. It’s a reaction to fearful (or to the perception of fearful) situations in the world around us.
But while extremely common, neuroticism is detrimental to your peace and longevity. Population studies have determined that neurotic personalities have a higher risk of mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, phobias, addictions, and antisocial personality disorder.
Neuroticism is also a predictor for quality of life. Those who have this character trait tend to be stressed out, upset, and in turmoil much more so than their peers. Not only are they at increased risk of mental health disorders, but they also tend to inflate (subconsciously or not) physical health issues.
In essence, the more pronounced your neurotic tendencies, the more unhappy you become. So, what can you do to reorient this miserable and stressful journey?
First, identify it. Second, understand it. Third, patiently work to slow down, calm the inner hamster wheel, speak with a professional, and work on emotional stability.
5 Signs of a Neurotic Personality
Here are a few suggestions to help you determine if you have neurotic tendencies.
1. You are Always Stressed Out
If you find yourself always worried about the world around you, and stressed out about the day to day, chances are you may fall into the neurotic category of the Big-5. This character trait may be a coping mechanism to manage the stress, through stimulating the fight or flight response. If you perceive the world as a dangerous place, you may have adopted neurotic methods to cope with these threats.
2. Your Always Experiencing Drama
Do you tend to lash out at those you love? Does everyone seem to do you wrong? Neurotic personality types find it challenging to maintain positive relationships with friends and family. At every turn, they perceive criticism and slights, even when there were none.
It’s very likely that if all your friendships are filled with drama, neuroticism is at least partially to blame. There is extensive research on how neuroticism affects interpersonal relationships, and it’s a negative association. High neuroticism lends itself to hostile reactions and poor relations.
3. You Find it Difficult to Cope
Another theme among neurotic personality types is the inability to cope with day-to-day stressors. For example, if you are already stressed out, you don’t have the emotional capacity to manage a traffic jam on the way to work, spilling coffee on your pants or any other minor annoyance.
Without the capacity to handle these stressors calmly and peacefully, you’ll find yourself in emotional turmoil. Some people may become hostile and aggressive; others may turn inwards and break down into tears.
These reactions to what would typically be minor blips in a daily routine indicate a neurotic emotional state. You are already maxed out, making it hard to cope with anything else.
4. Your Glass is Half Empty
According to the thesis of a publication titled, “Thinking too much: self-generated thought as the engine of neuroticism,” neuroticism leads to the excessive production of thoughts, which have a tendency to be negative. The paper proposes that neurotic personality types have a negative-thought factory, which always pumps out a spiral of adverse opinions, assumptions, and perceived threats.
The author of the paper, Adam Perkin’s “hypothesized that the brains of neurotic people are storm cloud factories,” continually perceiving the world as full of threats and wrongdoings. This is a glass half empty approach to life and shared among those who are neurotic.
5. You are a Perfectionist
Perfectionists have a high level of expectation about their actions and the actions of those around them. The drive to get things “just right” is intimately tied to stress. If life should fall outside the parameters of perfection, emotional instability follows suit.
Researchers long ago connected neuroticism and perfection. It has been identified as a behavior called “neurotic perfectionism.” These are people who “demand of themselves a usually unattainable level of performance, experience their efforts as unsatisfactory, and are unable to relax their standards.”
Does this tendency towards perfectionism, either at home, at school or on the job, sound like you? You may discover your perfectionist qualities also increase your neurotic qualities. They two character traits usually go hand-in-hand.
Can You Overcome Neuroticism?
Discovering your neurotic personality is the first step to overcoming it. To change anything about yourself, you must first identify it and understand it.
There are some benefits to being neurotic (timeliness, attention to detail, concern for others), but more frequently, it impacts your quality. Neuroticism impacts relationships, happiness, and mental health.
Being neurotic is stressful and exhausting. Most experts agree you cannot shift your personality traits overnight, but with a little perseverance, slow change is possible.
You can become more conscientious, agreeable, and emotionally stable over time. Recent research also suggests that therapy can also help reduce neurotic tendencies. Furthermore, long after the therapy sessions, people seem to reap long term benefits.
If you want to shift your neuroticism, remember – it’s all about practice, and building those new pathways of positive energy within your brain.