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What is Neuroticism in Psychology: Definition, Benefits, Examples

By:
Yelnur Shildibekov, PhD
|
Reviewed by:
Alexander Tokarev, PhD
What is Neuroticism in Psychology – PSYCULATOR
Anthony Tran | unsplash.com

The big five trait of Neuroticism is a fundamental personality trait characterized by emotional instability and vulnerability to stress and negative emotions.

People with neurotic personality traits tend to perceive everyday situations as distressing or threatening. They may struggle with emotion regulation, worry excessively, and feel overwhelmed by minor frustrations. You can try our free Big Five Personality test to find out your Neuroticism score, and what it means specifically for you.

Every individual possesses a unique personality type, which comprises a set of persistent personality traits that influence our interactions with ourselves and others, our ability to cope with stress, and our overall performance in personal, social, and professional domains.

According to the five-factor model, there are five dimensions of personality:

Understanding what is neuroticism in the big five and where you fall on the spectrum might help you better understand what triggers you and what you genuinely need. It can also help you develop tools to better manage stress and respond to life challenges.

What is Neuroticism in Psychology? (A Definition)

According to the psychology definition of the big five trait of neuroticism, or emotional instability, this dimension represents one's lack of ability to tolerate distress and keep composure and balance in the face of adversity.

The American Psychological Association defines emotional instability as "a tendency to exhibit unpredictable and rapid changes in emotions" (APA, n.d.). Furthermore, psychology defines the neuroticism personality trait as a dimension that involves a person's tendency to experience negative emotions such as anxiety, irritability, anger, or depression.

But what does high neuroticism mean for a person?

It means that their heightened sensitivity to stress, irritability, and negative emotions might have an impact on their quality of life and predispose them to mood disorders and other mental health disorders. However, like other personality traits, the big five trait of neuroticism occurs on a spectrum, which means that a person might have a low, moderate, or high level of neuroticism.

Neuroticism As a Big Five Personality Trait

Neuroticism is not a psychological disorder but rather a common personality trait, with people scoring anywhere on the spectrum from low to high on the big five scale.

With different levels of neuroticism variability, let’s look at what both ends of the spectrum are like.

High Neuroticism

So, what is high neuroticism? If you score high in neuroticism, you might experience emotional instability and intense emotional responses. You may see ordinary situations that most people do not find upsetting as extremely challenging or threatening.

Furthermore, you may frequently experience mood swings, irritability, and sadness or worry too much. You may overuse alcohol, and substances. Also, you might struggle with managing stress and emotion regulation, leading to challenges in your relationships, work, and everyday life (Widiger & Oltmanns, 2017).

Finally, while it is important to reiterate that neuroticism is not a personality disorder, it should be noted that people with high levels of neuroticism are more likely to experience mental health conditions such as anxiety (e.g. generalized anxiety disorder) and depression.

Low Neuroticism

The individual with the low score on the big five trait of neuroticism tends to be less prone to becoming easily upset and exhibiting less emotional reactivity. Also, people who score high on emotional stability tend to be calm and show good self-regulation, effectively controlling their emotions.

Individuals with high levels of neuroticism, as previously mentioned, are on the other extreme of the spectrum. These people frequently show increased emotional reactivity, making them more prone to experience negative emotions in situations that would typically have little impact on most people. Furthermore, people with high degrees of neuroticism frequently struggle with stress management and self-regulation.

Common Neuroticism Traits

Common symptoms of neuroticism include:

  • Extreme anxiety: feeling worried or tense most of the time
  • Irritability with sudden angry outbursts followed by guilt and shame
  • Agitation and emotional sensitivity: being easily upset and overreacting to emotional stimuli
  • Moodiness: experiencing frequent mood swings
  • Low self-esteem and self-consciousness: negative beliefs about own worth, insecurity and worry about what others think
  • Intense reactions to stress: feeling overwhelmed by stress
  • Depression: frequent feelings of despair and hopelessness
  • Difficulty managing relationships
  • Intense fear of criticism and rejection
  • Intense fear of everyday situations
  • Shame: deep-seated feelings of shame and belief that they are fundamentally flawed
  • Difficulty adapting to changes and life transitions
  • Pessimism: having a negative outlook on life and the future

Examples of Neuroticism

A person who, on big five personality neuroticism scale, scores high may experience significant shifts in mood without an apparent external cause. For example, they may appear happy and laidback one minute and then weep or strike out in fury the next. Alternatively, they may be overly self-conscious and excessively concerned about how others perceive them, often feeling embarrassed and insecure in social settings.

These examples of neuroticism show potential negative outcomes for your health, relationships, work productivity, and overall well-being.

Causes of Neuroticism

It is believed that neuroticism results from the combination of genetics, environmental, and psychological factors.

Genes

Research indicates that neuroticism may be related to genetic variations, suggesting that we might be born predisposed to a particular personality trait (Hill et al., 2019).

Twin studies suggest that about 40% to 60% of the variance in neuroticism, as well as other big five personality traits, is due to genetic factors.

Early Life Experiences

Experiencing childhood trauma, neglect, or chronic stress may shape how a person perceives and reacts to stress, increasing their predisposition to neurotic behavior later in life (Ogle et al., 2013).

Brain Structure and Function

The amygdala and prefrontal cortex, which regulate emotion and stress response, may work differently in people with high neuroticism, according to neuroimaging research. These variations impact stress and emotion processing.

For example, a smaller study showed that people with higher neuroticism scores had reduced oxygen levels in their lateral prefrontal cortex after exposure to distressing images compared to those who scored low in neuroticism (Balada et al., 2019).

Parenting Styles

Parenting styles such as overprotective or overly critical parenting can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders and emotional instability later in life. For instance, a parenting style that is overly controlling, strict, and emotionally distanced can cause the child to internalize feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, leading to the development of anxiety disorders later in life (Zeevi-Cousin & Lavenda, 2023).

Benefits of Neuroticism

Neuroticism is often perceived negatively, with a stigma attached to it. People who score high on the big five personality traits, neuroticism, are often labeled as overly pessimistic, anxious, and emotionally unstable, which can create prejudices and misconceptions about their competence, strength, and expertise.

However, neuroticism has its advantages. Neurotic people are more aware of life challenges and potential environmental threats. This may cause them to prepare themselves better for setbacks and transitions in life.

Neurotic traits can be advantageous in professions that involve critical decision-making and risk assessment, increasing a person's focus, creativity, and attention to detail.

Furthermore, their increased sensitivity to their own emotions can make persons with neurotic personality traits more sensitive to the feelings of others. This can result in more empathy and better relationships.

How Neuroticism Affects Behavior?

So, what is neurotic behavior? To better illustrate the effects of neuroticism on your life and well-being, here are some examples of neurotic behavior that you might experience in everyday situations:

  • You might overreact to minor setbacks at home, work, and in relationships.
  • You may be overwhelmed with work-related stress, unable to relax, and struggling to strike a work-life balance.
  • You might struggle with social anxiety and the fear of other people's judgment.
  • You may be hypersensitive to criticism, even when receiving constructive feedback.

A study that investigated optimism, stress perception, coping, and adaptation in women over 60 suggested that optimism was correlated with the big five traits of extroversion and emotional stability/low neuroticism (Boland & Cappeliez, 1997).

Another study that involved 1,658 participants from different communities in China showed that the five personality traits including neuroticism significantly impact overall social well-being (Yu et al., 2021).

How Neuroticism Affects Relationships

Neurotic behavior in relationships can result in various challenges, such as feelings of self-doubt, trust issues, and codependent behavior. If you score high on neuroticism, you might have difficulty trusting others and feeling secure in your relationships.

You may find vulnerability challenging because of your fear of rejection and abandonment. This behavior can lead to two outcomes in your relationships: you may come across as clingy and needy or become emotionally distant and prevent others from getting too close.

People with neurotic personalities often struggle with anxiety, moodiness, and a lack of self-control. This can cause communication issues and breakdowns in communication, creating resentment, frustration, and emotional withdrawal.

However, on the flip side, your emotional depth can result in genuine empathy and compassion, fostering deep connections.

How to cope with Neuroticism

Coping with neuroticism is about developing tools and strategies to manage your heightened emotional responses and increase resilience. So, here are some practices to help you learn how to be less neurotic.

Mindfulness meditation

Practicing mindfulness can help cultivate present-moment awareness. Focusing on the present moment can reduce rumination and worry, allowing you to observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without reacting.

Physical activity

Regular exercise can distract you from negative thoughts, help you relax, and alleviate anxiety and depression symptoms.

Psychotherapy

Going to therapy can be particularly helpful. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you identify and reframe negative thought patterns that trigger worry, insecurity, and depression, develop effective stress management strategies, and improve your emotional control.

Neuroticism vs Neurosis

The term "neuroticism" has its roots in the word "neurosis," which has been used since the 18th century to describe excessive or irrational emotional, mental, or physical reactions. It has become a popular term with Freud's development of psychoanalysis. However, "neuroticism" has evolved significantly from its original meaning.

Since 1980, when the American Psychiatric Association removed the word neurosis from its diagnostic handbook, neurosis is no longer considered a distinct medical condition but rather a manifestation of an anxiety disorder.

What is the Neuroticism Personality Trait?

Neurotic meaning in psychology today refers to a personality dimension. Because of the work of Hans Eysenck and the later development of the big five personality traits model, the concept of neuroticism as a personality trait gained popularity in the mid-twentieth century. Neuroticism, in this context, refers to a person's tendency to experience negative emotions and psychological stress more quickly and intensely than others.

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