Neuroticism refers to the tendency to experience frequent and intense negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, irritability, anger, and self-consciousness. Highly neurotic people often feel emotionally “on edge” and have difficulty managing stress. They see threats where others see ordinary challenges, and their strong feelings can strain relationships.
The good news is that while your genetics and early experiences influence neuroticism levels, you can take steps to manage this aspect of your personality. With self-awareness, emotional regulation skills, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness practices, and professional assistance, learn how to control your neuroticism rather than letting it control you.
- Neuroticism refers to the tendency to experience frequent and intense negative emotions. Highly neurotic individuals struggle with managing stress and interpreting ordinary situations as threatening.
- High levels of neuroticism can increase the risk of developing mental health disorders.
- Neuroticism is a manageable personality trait and can be controlled through self-awareness, emotional regulation skills, therapy, mindfulness practices, and professional assistance.
- Neuroticism is influenced by genetics, early experiences, brain structure and function, neurochemistry, stress, poor coping skills, cognitive factors, comorbid mental health issues, and environmental stressors.
- Seeking professional help from a licensed mental health professional is crucial if neurotic tendencies significantly impair daily functioning and emotional well-being.
What Is Neuroticism?
Neuroticism is a fundamental personality trait characterized by frequent and intense feelings of anxiety, worry, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, and loneliness. Highly neurotic people tend to be emotionally reactive and sensitive to perceived threats and stresses. They are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening and minor frustrations as disproportionately difficult. High neuroticism reflects chronic emotional instability and susceptibility to psychological distress. It is one of the Big Five core personality dimensions measured by psychologists, along with extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
Neurotic behavior is a public health issue that can diminish productivity, harm work relationships, and prevent career advancement. Additionally, a study from Translational Psychiatry found “People who are higher in neuroticism have an increased risk of developing Axis I psychopathology, especially the common mental disorders such as mood, anxiety, somatoform and substance use disorders, and also schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”
Neurosis and neuroticism are not the same. Neurosis is a psychological disorder, while neuroticism is a personality trait.
Neuroticism Personality Traits
“Neurotics complain of their illness, but they make the most of it, and when it comes to taking it away from them they will defend it like a lioness her young.”Sigmund Freud
How do you know if you’re highly neurotic? Psychologists assess neuroticism levels using personality assessments that evaluate characteristic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. People high in neuroticism tend to exhibit some key signs:
- Frequent worrying and anxiety
- Difficulty calming down when stressed
- Oversensitivity to criticism and rejection
- Chronic negative emotions like guilt, anger, envy, or sadness
- Catastrophizing and jumping to worst-case scenarios
- Perfectionist tendencies
- Low frustration tolerance and impatience
- Self-consciousness and poor self-esteem
- Difficulty making decisions
- Trouble sleeping
- Somatic complaints like headaches or stomach issues
- Being easily annoyed or irritated
- Rumination and dwelling on problems
- Feeling overwhelmed by emotions
- Receiving an anxiety disorder or personality disorder diagnosis
- Difficulty concentrating due to worries
- Avoiding perceived risks excessively
- Being viewed by others as “emotional”
- Prone to feelings of helplessness and pessimism
- Quickly changing moods
- Emotional outbursts over minor triggers
- Often described as Type A
The more signs present, the higher one’s neuroticism level likely is. Tracking these tendencies can provide insight into managing this trait along with mood and anxiety disorders.
Take this free Big Five Personality test to see how high you score in neuroticism.
What Causes Neuroticism?
Neuroticism is a complex personality trait influenced by multiple factors. While genetics play a significant role, a person’s environment and experiences are also impactful. The following are some of the potential causes of high neuroticism, including:
- Genetics: Twin studies suggest genetics account for 55% of neuroticism variation.
- Early childhood experiences: Research shows trauma, abuse, neglect, or unstable home environments may predispose people to higher neuroticism later in life.
- Brain structure and function: A neuroimaging study linked neuroticism to greater activity in regions associated with negative emotion, threat response, fear, and worry.
- Neurochemistry: Those with a neurotic personality may have imbalances in neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
- Stress: Chronic stress seems to amplify neurotic behaviors and negative emotionality.
- Poor coping skills: Those who lack effective emotion regulation strategies tend to score higher in neuroticism.
- Cognitive factors: Neurotic people often have distorted thinking patterns like catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, personalizing, and selective abstraction.
- Comorbid mental health issues: Health conditions like anxiety, depression, and OCD have high comorbidity with neuroticism.
- Environmental factors: Neuroticism may be exacerbated by external stressors like difficult relationships, jobs, trauma, or life changes.
High neuroticism is influenced by a complex interplay between genetic, neurological, cognitive, emotional, and environmental factors. Genetics provides a predisposition, but life experiences and learned behaviors also shape how neuroticism gets expressed.
7 Ways to Feel Less Anxious and Regulate Neuroticism
1. Challenge Distorted Thinking
“Take stock of your thoughts and behavior. Each night ask yourself, when were you negative when you could have been positive? When did you withhold love when you might have given it? When did you play a neurotic game instead of behaving in a powerful way? Use this process to self-correct.”Marianne Williamson
Neurotic individuals frequently fall into distorted thinking patterns like catastrophizing or overgeneralizing, which fuels their anxiety and sadness. It’s important to catch yourself when you have exaggerated a situation or made irrational assumptions.
Take time to identify cognitive distortions, like “black and white thinking,” and examine whether your interpretation aligns with reality. Ask yourself, “Is there a more moderate and realistic perspective here?”
To challenge distorted thoughts, try:
- Consistently “reality testing” to gradually shift entrenched negative thoughts over time.
- Practicing self-awareness by identifying the type of distortion in your thinking out loud. For example, if you’re catastrophizing say, “Catastrophizing, catastrophizing, catastrophizing, catastrophizing.” Keeping awareness of your mind is key.
- Examining if your interpretation of a situation aligns with the facts.
- Asking yourself, “What is a more moderate, realistic perspective?”
2. Practice Relaxation Techniques
“Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.”Saint Francis de Sales
Neurotic individuals experience frequent feelings of tension, anxiety, and stress that amplify their distress. If you have a generalized anxiety disorder or neurotic traits, regularly practicing research-backed relaxation techniques is important. They work by calming the body’s fight-or-flight response and quieting worried thoughts through focused awareness.
Techniques like controlled breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness meditation can be done anywhere. Make relaxation a consistent daily habit, even on good days, to strengthen your ability to self-induce deeper states of calm when you need it most. This builds long-term resilience against neurotic reactivity.
To make relaxation effective, be sure to:
- Practice deep breathing exercises for 5–10 minutes daily. Inhale slowly through your nose, feel your belly expand with air, then exhale slowly through pursed lips.
- Use apps like Calm or Headspace to guide you through mindful meditation or progressive muscle relaxation. Start with 10–15 minutes daily.
- Do gentle yoga flows, focusing on slow movements paired with deep breathing. Hold stretches for 30 seconds.
- Go for short, mindful walks—walk slowly while paying close attention to your senses and surroundings.
- Sit quietly and mentally scan your body to identify areas of tension. Consciously relax each tensed muscle group.
- Repeat a mantra like “relax” or “let go” silently to yourself during stressful times.
3. Reframe Situations Positively
“Everything can be taken from a man but . . . the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”Viktor Frankl
The tendency to automatically perceive experiences in an irrationally negative light maintains neuroticism. Actively counterbalance this by looking for potential positives or opportunities for growth in each situation. First, acknowledge when you default to a pessimistic perspective. Then ask yourself questions like “What good could come from this?” or “How might I benefit from this challenge?” With practice, you can reframe things in a more constructive, optimistic way that feels empowering rather than defeated.
You can reframe things positively by:
- Pausing and acknowledging negative feelings and emotions rather than ignoring them. Say to yourself, “I’m seeing this negatively right now.”
- Asking yourself open-ended questions like, “What potential positives could come from this?” or “How might this be beneficial for my growth?”
- Looking for small silver linings such as learning opportunities or chances to demonstrate resilience.
- Focusing on parts of the situation you do have control over rather than ruminating on those you don’t.
- Reminding yourself of times in the past when good ultimately came from an initial negative event.
- Writing your negative thoughts down and then countering them.
4. Limit Catastrophizing
“Catastrophizing is a bit like taking a microscope to our worst fears and viewing them at a scale a hundred times their actual size.”Gregg Vanourek
Catastrophizing involves exaggerating hypothetical risks and dwelling on imagined worst-case scenarios as if they are likely to happen. This tendency dramatically fuels feelings of anxiety and helplessness. When you notice your mind gravitating to catastrophic thinking, interrupt the thought and clearly state, “This is catastrophizing.” Bring yourself back to reality by considering the most probable moderate outcome based on facts, not exaggerated fears. Limiting catastrophizing reduces neurotic feelings of impending doom.
To limit catastrophizing:
- Interrupt the catastrophizing thought by saying to yourself, “Stop. This is catastrophizing.” Bring awareness to what is happening.
- Replace the catastrophic thought with the most likely, moderate outcome based on facts and data rather than fear.
- Visualize successfully coping with the difficult but realistic obstacles you may actually face.
- Recall that previous experiences when catastrophizing never resulted in the imagined worst-case result.
- Talk to a trusted friend to get a reality check on whether you are catastrophizing. Their objective perspective can be grounding.
5. Manage Perfectionism
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”Brené Brown
Perfectionism typically stems from underlying feelings of inadequacy and a perceived need to meet extremely high standards to achieve worth or acceptance. The unrealistic standards of perfectionism set neurotic individuals up for constant frustration and disappointment.
Combat this by adjusting your goals and expectations to be ambitious yet reasonably achievable, given your current abilities. Make a point to appreciate small successes and regular progress rather than focusing solely on inadequacies. Frequently remind yourself that done is better than perfect. Finding this balance helps reduce the self-judgment and anxiety perfectionism fuels.
Some ways to combat perfectionism include:
- Identifying the origins of your perfectionism, like underlying insecurity. See it for what it is.
- Setting specific goals that stretch your abilities but are realistic, given where you currently are. Break bigger goals into smaller incremental steps.
- Rather than rigidly adhering to original goals, be flexible and adjust them to continue making forward progress.
- Regularly tracking progress and achievements in a journal to enhance awareness of successes.
- Actively appreciating small daily accomplishments to counterbalance a focus only on inadequacies.
- Using positive self-talk like “Progress over perfection.”
6. Take Decisive Action
“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”Zig Ziglar
The uncertainty of inaction allows neurotic rumination to thrive. Blunt this habit by taking constructive steps whenever possible. In situations causing you distress, determine one thing you could do right now to move forward. Channel all mental energy into focusing solely on carrying out that action. This solution-focused approach reduces anxious overthinking and builds confidence you are addressing things proactively.
You can overcome rumination by:
- Identifying one concrete, achievable action step you can take to move forward rather than getting lost in worried thoughts. Start small.
- Making a realistic, detailed plan for implementing your chosen action. Focus on the specifics needed to carry it out.
- Practicing mindful awareness when you catch yourself ruminating again. Note the thoughts then gently shift your focus back to your action plan.
- Celebrating completion of action steps, no matter how small. This creates positive momentum.
- Reminding yourself that rumination prolongs suffering while action creates progress.
7. Seek Social Support
“When you understand that being connected to others is one of life’s greatest joys, you realize that life’s best comes when you initiate and invest in solid relationships.”John C. Maxwell
Isolation tends to worsen neurotic behavior and thinking patterns. Those who are introverts/introverted extroverts or the work personality types like Type A, Type C, and Type D will struggle more than others. Ensure you have positive social connections in your life that you can lean on for reality-testing and reassurance when feeling overwhelmed by emotion. Sharing your feelings openly with trusted confidantes can provide perspective. Bonding over shared interests also builds social support networks that bolster resilience against neurotic thinking habits.
To tap into social support:
- Identify 2–3 trusted, caring friends or family members you feel comfortable confiding in and share your feelings honestly with them.
- Tell loved ones specifically when you need their reassurance or a reality check on your neurotic worries.
- Prioritize quality one-on-one time with supportive people in your life. Do shared activities you both enjoy.
- Express genuine appreciation for social support when they help you, which motivates them.
- Allow yourself to be vulnerable rather than always portraying yourself as “fine.”
- Listen compassionately when supporters confide in you as well to strengthen mutual understanding.
What to Do If Neuroticism Controlling Your Life
“I’m a bit neurotic” is something we’ve all said or heard someone say. So, what’s the difference between neuroticism that is manageable and unmanageable?
Extreme neuroticism permeates one’s life and impairs functioning. For highly neurotic people, emotional reactions are frequently intense and excessive. At this extreme, neuroticism strains relationships, disrupts work, and reduces life satisfaction. When neurotic tendencies escalate from a personality quirk to a enduring pattern of disproportionate distress and dysfunctional behavior, professional help is needed.
If you exhibit more than one of the following signs, seek professional help:
- Excessive worrying: You spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about minor things or unlikely scenarios, making it hard to focus on the present moment.
- Impulsive behaviors: Making hasty decisions without thinking to distract yourself from unpleasant feelings. This can include impulsive shopping, drinking, eating, or gambling.
- Aggressive outbursts: Snapping at others when feeling threatened or criticized. May come across as anger issues.
- Meltdowns: You experience constant emotional outbursts or panic attacks in response to minor triggers.
- Excessive envy: Feeling bitter and resentful toward others who seem more successful.
- Addictive behaviors: Prone to developing dependencies on substances or activities that provide distraction or temporary mood boosts.
- Overspending: Reckless spending when stressed to achieve quick gratification.
- Obsessive passion: Becoming completely consumed with interests that distract from negative feelings.
If neurotic tendencies become so frequent and intense that they significantly impair your daily functioning and emotional well-being, it is important to contact a licensed mental health professional who can medically review you. A psychologist or therapist can help you better manage neurotic thought and behavior patterns through interventions like cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness practices, and medication if warranted.
For more mental health resources, read these articles:
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