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At some point in every person’s life, they’ve been asked about their Myers Briggs Type, numerology number, or even their rising moon and sun just for others to have a baseline or prospect of their personality.
But did you know that the Big Five Personality Test is by far the most scientifically validated and reliable psychological model to measure personality?
So next time you meet a stranger, maybe you should ask them about their Big Five Personality Test results!
But in today’s world– a world plagued with political and social conflict and a global pandemic, one of the most important things to assess in a person is their emotional stability or what they officially call neuroticism, which is one of the domains of the aforementioned personality test.
What is neuroticism?
Some have probably heard of the term, but for sure it’s a new concept/term for the majority of the readers.
Neuroticism is one of the five personality traits of the Big Five Personality theory which contains five broad domains that determine human personality and account for individual differences.
This theory involves testing the following:
- Openness – traits under this involve being insightful, imaginative, or having a wide variety of interests;
- Conscientiousness – they say that people who have a high level of conscientiousness are reliable and prompt since the trait includes being organized, methodic, and thorough;
- Extraversion – coming from the word “extravert”, this includes traits such as being energetic, talkative, and assertive;
- Agreeableness – traits include being kind, affectionate, and sympathetic; and
- Neuroticism – is often called emotional stability; it relates to a person’s overall emotional stability and degree of negative emotions through how they perceive the world.
Since neuroticism is indicative of a person’s ability to remain stable and balanced, people who score high on this domain may often experience emotional instability, negative emotions, and being moody and tense.
As much as neuroticism is said to be the tendency toward anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and other negative feelings, people also need to remember that all of these domains exist on a spectrum(i.e, some can be more or less emotionally stable than others).1
Others falsely call people with high levels of neuroticism neurotic, but they are different things.
Neuroticism is a personality trait that does not impair everyday life, and neurosis (a term that is no longer used) was used to refer to depression or anxiety disorders that impair everyday normal functioning.2
You may take the test HERE.
What is neuroticism in psychology?
To reiterate, neuroticism is a personality trait and not a psychological/medical condition.
Regardless, the issues it present should not be invalidated and looked over just because it’s not an actual condition.
According to a 2009 manuscript by Dr. Benjamin B. Lahey from the University of Chicago’s Departments of Health Studies and Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience:
“Although not widely appreciated, there is growing evidence that neuroticism is a psychological trait of profound public health significance. Neuroticism is a robust correlate and predictor of many different mental and physical disorders, comorbidity among them, and the frequency of mental and general health service use.”
According to a study published in 2016 that tested 108,038 men and women respondents, people who are higher in neuroticism levels consequently have a high chance of developing Axis I psychopathology, especially mood, anxiety, somatoform, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and even schizophrenia.
A high level of neuroticism is also associated with the increased risk of being diagnosed with Axis II personality disorders (e.g, borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, etc.) with higher comorbidity with an internalizing disorder, such as major depression or generalized anxiety, and externalizing disorder, such as alcohol and drug dependence or conduct disorders.
Worse, a very high level of neuroticism is also linked with the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Which neurotransmitter is most likely linked to the personality trait of neuroticism?
The linking of specific neurotransmitters to a specific personality trait is quite challenging since there are other factors in play, such as genetic or cultural variations.3
Luckily for humanity, there have been several studies that look at personality traits and neurotransmitters and one of which looks at Serotonin.
Serotonin, scientifically called 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), is the neurotransmitter known to play a role in a person’s mood, emotions, appetite, and digestion.
In addition to this, it’s also a precursor for melatonin so it also aids in regulating the sleep-wake cycle and the body clock.
Since personality traits are seen as one of the most important factors for vulnerability to depression, serotonin is the key neurotransmitter to look at.
In a study where the researchers investigated the relationship between serotonin transporter (5-HTT) polymorphism, a gene responsible for regulating chemical serotonin and helps transmit messages to the brain, and anxiety-related personality disorder.
While the respondents of the study are small, it still shows that neuroticism has a positive correlation with 5-HTT binding in the thalamus.
The researchers concluded that respondents with higher thalamic 5-HTT binding have a higher chance of expressing higher levels of neuroticism.
What is the relationship between neuroticism and emotions?
In a nutshell, neuroticism is a person’s ability to stay emotionally balanced.
People who have low levels of neuroticism are emotionally strong and can show emotional stability, calmness, and do not often feel negative emotions despite being in stressful circumstances.
This is not to say, however, that people who score low under this domain no longer experience negative emotions because they still can.4
People who score high, on the other hand, have a tendency to easily feel negative emotions when put under duress, despite the gravity of it.
According to a journal article by Thomas A. Widiger and Joshua R. Oltmanns, neuroticism has enormous public health implications since it makes a person vulnerable to a wide array of different forms of psychopathology such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, somatic symptoms, and disordered eating and/or eating disorders.
Unfortunately, aside from its psychological effects, it can also affect the person’s physical state, such as cardiac problems, disrupted immune functioning, and asthma, among others.
Lastly, multiple studies have also shown that high levels of neuroticism is associated with a diminished quality of life that may come from different factors caused by it (e.g marital dissatisfaction, occupational failure, ill-will, excessive worry).
Given all of these, the big question now is: is neuroticism bad?
No, neuroticism is just a personality trait and does not indicate whether a person with high levels will live a bad and unhappy life.
Even people with low levels of neuroticism can experience negative emotions, it’s all about having healthy coping mechanisms and mindsets.
What are the facets of neuroticism?
According to John & Srivastaza (1999), as cited in this article, there’s a general pattern of personality or behavior of how people with low and high levels present:
- Angry hostility (irritable)
- Experiences a lot of stress
- Self-consciousness (shy)
- Experiences dramatic shifts in mood
- Don’t worry much
- Emotionally stable
- Rarely feel sad or depressed
How does neuroticism affect a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors?
Since neuroticism is a personality trait, it involves a specific pattern of how a person thinks, feels, and behaves, especially when there is a real or perceived stress or problem.
People have different problems and stressors and consequently various responses to them, but here are the common internal and/or external variables people which people with high levels of neuroticism respond to:5
- Stressor – Stressors can be as simple as spilling your tea or forgetting to do your assignment, and for people with high levels of neuroticism, these stressors may lead to severe negative emotions and destructive behaviors.
Stressors can either be internal, such as a memory or internal physical pain, or external, such as interactions or circumstances I mentioned; these can trigger stress, fear, anger, sadness, and other negative emotions.
- Exaggerate Negative Perception – People with high levels of neuroticism have the tendency to downplay the positive emotions or circumstances they have experienced and exaggerate the negative factors or circumstances.
Because of this, they tend to have a worldview that is difficult, stressful, depressing, or dangerous.
- Internalization– More often than not, people with high neuroticism are highly self-conscious and self-critical. They internalize negative stress or situations and put the blame on themselves for it.
They tend to fixate on their weaknesses, mishaps, or engage in negative self-talk that may lead to feeling shame, guilt, or helplessness.
- Rumination – People with high levels of neuroticism are victims of rumination, the constant self-talk of focusing on the issue or distress rather than the solution.
Of course, when all these negative thoughts run through their mind 24/7, it will lead them to feel these negative thoughts more intensely and for a longer period of time.
- Ineffective Response – When placed in difficult situations, some people act on it in a healthy manner by talking it out or making amends; however, people with high levels of neuroticism have the tendency to withdraw or hide to forget about it; blame someone else for their actions to not feel the guilt; or turn to drugs, alcohol, and other bad habits as a form of emotional relief.
- Consequences -If they don’t have the knowledge to cope or regulate their emotions, their responses to situations may generate and worsen the problem and consequences.
Examples of these are being in conflict with other people; critical feedback at work; or doing harmful coping mechanisms or self-criticism once they feel bad or guilty about their actions.
If this persists, it can lead to a toxic vicious cycle that can destroy relationships and harm other people and themselves.
How does neuroticism affect the person’s relationship?
As explained, neuroticism has a significant effect on a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; of course, the other people who are also affected most by this are the people constantly around them– significant others, family members, best friends, etc.
How can neuroticism affect their loved ones?6
- High level of annoyance – People with high levels of neuroticism tends to be critical of others, overly dependent, complain a lot, constantly seek reassurance, and create arguments over small things.
Let’s face it, that’s kind of annoying especially when you experience it 24/7.
- Greater number of conflicts – It’s not just a greater number of conflicts with their loved ones, but also strangers. Even a small mistake from a stranger can turn into a shouting match, even if it could have been easily avoided.
Some people with high neuroticism also have the tendency to accuse others of their own mistakes to placate themselves, which will either turn into a fight or make your significant other take the blame and guilt.
- Appearing unreliable – Due to the poor emotional stability, people often consider people with high levels of neuroticism as unreliable, especially during adversities.
- Increased feeling of guilt – On the other end of the spectrum, there are people with high levels of neuroticism who feel guilty about everything, even those unrelated to them.
This leads them to over-compensate, apologize tons of times, or obsess about things for a long period of time; this can push people away, as well.
More than this, feeling immense guilt about every little thing increases the risk of anxiety and depression
Other people would say that they are toxic, but we have to remember that they are victims of this, as well. Of course, this is just a reason and not an excuse.
So if you’ve experienced all of these from a single person, maybe it’s time to do the difficult talk of pointing out the issue and persuade them to talk to a professional.
And if you have incurred trauma or negativity from this, you may also go to a mental health professional to talk and then process your experiences.
When to seek help?
High levels of neuroticism may lead to severe mental health conditions, so it is important to be cautious and aware of your personal emotions and symptoms.
Again there is nothing bad in having high levels of neuroticism, but when you are experiencing these symptoms constantly it may be time to seek help:7
- Recurring relationship issues or constant unstable relationships
- Inability to experience positive emotions
- Persistent negative emotions that last for more than a week or two
- Intense negative emotions or mood swings that harm judgment or relationship with others
- Reliance on self-medication or constant usage of drugs, alcohol, and other harmful coping mechanisms
- Thoughts of suicide, death, or bodily harm
- Difficulty or inability to sleep, eat or do basic tasks due to negative emotions
- Difficulty or inability to focus because of persistent negative thoughts
- Frequent impulsive choices that lead to negative consequences
How to cope and/or treat neuroticism
Even if neuroticism is just a personality trait, it can still significantly affect a person’s everyday life.
To ensure that high levels of neuroticism won’t lead to any psychiatric conditions, it’s always better to prevent it by incorporating healthy coping mechanisms in your life.
But if you’re already in the worst-case scenario and it has already led to being clinically diagnosed, here are the things you can do:8,9
- Going to therapy – Going to therapy with a mental health professional is the best thing to do when you’re already suffering from the symptoms of neuroticism.
Certain kinds of counseling are found to be very helpful with neuroticism such as Unified Protocol, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and other behavioral interventions with the goal of regulating emotions.
Aside from therapy, counseling can also be helpful since it offers a validating environment for the person to express and/or process their emotions and learn healthier coping mechanisms.
- Medication – Medication, together with therapy, works wonders in terms of coping and treating neuroticism, especially for those who are already clinically diagnosed. Psychiatrists would know which is the best medication to take.
- Journaling – As cliche as journaling is, it is actually very helpful for your mental health. Even mental health professionals, such as those who do Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, make journaling an assignment for their patients.
Journaling can be a healthy outlet to release, confront, and process one’s emotions without the fear of judgment.
- Reappraise and replace your thoughts – People with high levels of neuroticism tend to see the world and themselves in a skewed and negative light, which will trigger a series of negative emotions that usually lead to dissenting reactions.
Every day, practice analyzing and identifying your thoughts through an objective lens. Once you recognize these inaccurate assumptions that lead to negative emotions, try to replace them with constructive and factual thoughts.
This is not an easy job, but everyday practice is key.
- Practice Mindfulness – In today’s world, it’s hard to practice mindfulness when everything is fast-paced and one is expected to do and think of things all the time.
Within the 24 hours of the day, even just allotting 10 mins to deliberately focus one’s attention on the present without any judgment will go a long way.
Mindfulness is specifically helpful for people with high neuroticism as the practice makes you embrace recognition letting go of these emotions since all emotions are temporary.
- Create healthy eating and exercise habits – as repeatedly mentioned, high levels of neuroticism have an effect on the physical body. It will be harder for a person to cope with negative emotions when their body is unwell.
There are other treatments and coping mechanisms for neuroticism that can be explored, such as the ‘Use Opposite to Emotion/Action Technique’ which is a DBT technique; radical acceptance; effective problem-solving; fostering positive emotions; managing stress; and enhancing relationships and expanding support systems.
How to support someone with high levels of neuroticism
Sometimes all we can do for a friend is to be there for them. If they’re not ready for therapy, if they’re not ready to talk, or if they’re not ready to take a step forward, then that’s perfectly fine.
Again, the best thing you can do is to make them feel that you will always be there for them every step of the way Reassurance from a trusted loved one means a lot to a person with a high level of neuroticism.
You can reassure them that their feelings are valid, not being able to do anything is normal, and whatever they’re going through will eventually end and you’ll be there for them throughout the entire journey.
In terms of giving advice, read the room first or ask if they are ready for advice. If they are not, just wait until they are ready for it.
But if they do say that they need advice, make sure that you frame it positively and your feedback is constructive. Do not make them feel bad for their actions or for the emotions that they are feeling, and remember to always be patient and understanding.
You can also suggest going out. You can go to your favorite restaurant or watch your favorite movie; this can give them breathing space from their constant worrying or negative thoughts.
However, if that’s too much for them, even going on a walk or to the park is more than enough.
Once they are ready to accept help, support them since this will be the best thing they can do. You can help them find reliable therapists or even go to the clinic with them.
I’m sure that this is a difficult conversation to have, especially for people that are averse to help, but it’s an important one to have. But before anything else, make sure you are also mentally and emotionally stable to help a friend.
You can’t emotionally help a friend when you yourself are drowning.