2020 threw a lot of curveballs at us. We were all put under a lot of stress, whether through unemployment, grief, or just the general anxiety surrounding politics or the state of the world. It’s normal if you felt more negative emotions in 2020 than you had in previous years.
But for many people, 2020 was another year of leaning toward negative emotions. We all know someone who is prone to feeling anxious, global pandemic or not. They are more likely stressed-out than not, and their emotions may be all over the place.
In the world of personality psychology, we may refer to this trait as “neuroticism.”
What is Neuroticism?
Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative moods. Although this is a term that is most commonly used when talking about the Big Five Personality Theory, tests and learning material may refer to this trait as “natural reactions.”
About the Big Five
Before we get into the definition of neuroticism, let’s zoom out to personality theory as a whole. There are many ways that people can describe another person’s personality, but psychologists wanted more structure as they examined what determines and affects personality. They wanted a list of traits by which they could examine all personalities.
At first, this list was long: 4,000 traits to be exact. But this proved to be a very hard list to work with. So in the 1940s, personality psychologists went in a completely different direction. Hans and Sybil Eysenck identified three traits (or rather, three spectrums) that would determine personality: neuroticism/stability, extraversion/introversion, and psychoticism/socialization. Although this work got us closer to today’s accepted theory of psychology, it needed a little more clarification.
Students of Eysenck expanded upon their theory to create The Big Five Personality Theory. This theory takes a look at five different dimensions of personality:
- Openness to Experience
(The acronyms OCEAN or CANOE can help you remember these traits.)
These traits, like the traits identified by Eysenck, exist on a spectrum. A person who is not very agreeable still has a personality - so does a person who is not very neurotic. These traits just give five dimensions in which psychologists can study personality.
Is Neuroticism a Mental Illness?
The term neuroticism did evolve from the term neurosis - a word that generally described mental illness in the time of psychologists like Sigmund Freud. Rest assured, if you are someone that scores high in neuroticism, it does not necessarily mean that you have a mental illness.
What Does "High Neuroticism" and "Low Neuroticism" Look Like?
A person who experiences high neuroticism is prone to conditions like anxiety and depression. They are also likely to feel negative emotions like anger, guilt, or sadness. Another term that personality psychologists use for neuroticism is emotional instability. If you have high neuroticism in your personality, it is likely that you have a hard time controlling your emotions or tend to let your emotions “get the best of you.”
People with high neuroticism are likely to go through:
- Indulgent behaviors
High Neuroticism Examples
One stressful day at work, comment from a partner, or a particularly long battle with traffic are not easily brushed off by someone with high neuroticism. They hold onto it very tightly. Rumination is a common practice that leads to (and results from) high neuroticism. Ruminating on a stressful situation, however small it may be, can cause emotions to build and negative emotions to linger. This happens a lot when someone has a high level of neuroticism in thier personality.
The sensitivity felt by someone with a high level of neuroticism affects many of the interactions that they have with friends, family members, or colleagues. These people may feel like they are “walking on eggshells” and have to tread lightly to avoid triggering anxious, angry, or guilty feelings. For people who are already neurotic, the stress of 2020 may have felt like too much to handle all at once.
Although high neuroticism is not a mental disorder in and of itself, people with high neuroticism in their personalities are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders. They may also have a higher risk of abusing drugs and alcohol or experiencing problems with addiction.
Low Neuroticism Examples
Eysenck first defined neuroticism as having a low tolerance for stress; therefore, people with a low level of neuroticism tend to tolerate stress better. They can separate a long battle with traffic from the rest of their workday; or, they find a way to make the long battle with traffic a fun experience (maybe by listening to a podcast.) Their self-confidence serves as a shield if they come into contact with a jerk at work or go through hard times.
Letting go of stress and anxiety allows a person with low neuroticism to think clearly before, during, and after encountering a stressful situation. They tend to be level-headed, even-tempered, and self-assured.
All people experience negative emotions - even people with low neuroticism. Stress, grief, sadness, and frustration are all natural reactions to the human experience. The difference between someone with a high level of neuroticism and a low level of neuroticism is how long they hold onto those feelings.
Are You Neurotic?
The fear of having something “wrong” with your personality can be a never-ending cycle of self-consciousness but it’s important to identify if have a tendency to be anxious, hostile, or sensitive to stress. Read the following statements and see if you agree:
- I tend to picture or expect the worst-case scenario.
- It’s hard for me to shake off feelings of anxiety when they creep in.
- Stress is constantly affecting my decisions.
- I have a hard time sleeping because I am so nervous.
- Mood swings are just another part of my day.
- I am not content with my life on a day-to-day basis.
- It doesn’t take much to stress me out.
- I am anxious.
- People tend to tell me that I’m uptight.
- I don’t do well under pressure.
If you agree with most of these statements, you would likely score high when it comes to neuroticism. Do not worry. No one personality trait is “good” or “bad,” and everyone exists on a spectrum that varies over the course of one’s life. There is nothing “wrong” with you if you have high neuroticism in your personality.
Is Neuroticism Bad?
A Reddit user made a post on the BigFive subreddit titled, "Neuroticism is a curse." They wrote:
"Neuroticism has no advantages instead it's full of disadvantages. I have 100% high neuroticism and all my problems in life are because of it. If I wasn't so neurotic, my life would be much better."
In the comments, people agree, disagree, and offer advice. Although no personality trait is inherently “right” or “wrong,” you may find yourself wanting to learn how to deal with stress better. After all, chronic stress can have a seriously negative effect on your physical and mental health. But are personality traits fixed or are they flexible?
Can Neuroticism Be Changed?
The answer has varied throughout the history of modern psychology. The “nature vs. nurture” debate has raged for decades. When it comes to neuroticism, psychologists do believe that genes play a role in the makeup of your personality, but your environment and external situation plays an even larger role. Events from your childhood, trauma, or even diet are considered “causes” of anxiety, both on the mild and more severe scale.
This doesn’t mean that someone who is depressed should just “try to feel better” or that people who lived in “happy” lives shouldn’t be anxious. This just means that the complexities behind neuroticism, personality, and mental illness cannot be boiled down to one set of cause and effect. Just as you may have noticed that certain external factors caused a higher level of stress in 2020 than in previous years, you may notice that certain environmental factors, or even actions that you take yourself, can lead to a lower level of neuroticism.
How to Take Control of Your Natural Reactions
Learning how to manage stress can’t be done overnight. This is a long - even a lifelong - process, but it starts with simple steps.
The body’s natural stress response can be triggered by something as large as trauma or as something small as a phone call from an ex-partner. Learning how to direct the body from “fight or flight” to “rest and digest” is as easy as taking a breath. Deep breathing practices, both secular and within larger spiritual practices, can help you manage stress in the moment and in general.
Make adjustments to your physical health.
The hormones racing through your body often have an impact on your mood and stress. Getting outside, exercising, and moving your body can help to trigger hormones that make you feel good. Adjustments to your diet may also change what your body is capable of handling when it comes to stress or other moods.
Reaching out to a mental health professional.
Anxiety, depression, PTSD, or other related disorders may be intertwined with trauma that has not been processed. A mental health professional can help you identify what is causing you to feel stressed and implement strategies to help you manage stress more effectively.