How Neuroticism Affects Your Behavior

neuroticism and behavior

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

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Do you struggle with neuroticism? Neuroticism is one of the "Big Five" personality traits, along with extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness (OCEAN or CANOE are the acronyms sometimes used to remember these traits). These broad categories reflect enduring personality traits that have been identified as common ways of categorizing across individuals.

This concept has roots in Freudian times but was later expanded upon by Hans Eysenck and others. Neuroticism has come to be known as the trait reflecting emotional stability or the tendency to become easily aroused when stimulated (or the inability to calm oneself down easily when upset or worried).

Costa and McCrae and others later defined neuroticism as a negative personality trait involving maladjustment and negative emotions, poor self-regulation or the ability to manage urges, trouble dealing with stress, strong reaction to perceived threat, and the tendency to complain. Thus, overall, neuroticism has been defined as the tendency to experience negative emotion.

Prevalence of Neuroticism

Neuroticism is generally measured using self-report questionnaires as part of a personality assessment. It might also involve asking other people such as friends and family who know a person well about their personality characteristics.

Because neuroticism is a dimension and not a diagnosis, prevalence rates of neurotic personality are not reported as they are for diagnosable mental disorders.

Instead, each person falls on a continuum of the range of neuroticism from very low to very high. In other words, we all exist on a spectrum from one end to the other when it comes to being neurotic in our behavior.

Common Neurotic Traits

What are the common neurotic traits? People who fall high on the spectrum of neuroticism tend to show the following characteristics:

  • Overall tendency toward negative emotions
  • Feels of anxiety or irritability
  • Poor emotional stability
  • Feelings of self-doubt
  • Feelings of being self-conscious or shy
  • Sadness, moodiness, depression
  • Easily stressed or upset, unable to handle stress well
  • Dramatic shifts in how you are feeling
  • Lack of resilience or struggling to bounce back after adversity
  • Chronic worrying about a variety of things
  • Tendency to interpret neutral situations as threatening
  • Tendency to view minor problems as overwhelming
  • Difficulty controlling urges or emotions in the moment
  • Easily becoming jealous or feeling envy about what others have
  • Trouble with frustration or anger about everyday occurrences
  • Feelings of fear or guilt over minor things

Causes of Neuroticism

What are the causes of neuroticism? We know that the trait appears to be universal across cultures, so it likely has biological origins. In fact, some argue that neuroticism may have an evolutionary explanation, and that in some respects being hypersensitive to danger or threats could offer a survival advantage.

There is also some evidence that neuroticism may be correlated with the startle reflex. The startle reflex is a response to a loud noise. This suggests that individuals who are high in neuroticism may be genetically wired to naturally react more strongly to outside stimuli.

How Neuroticism Affects Behavior

How does neuroticism affect behavior? Both positive and negative outcomes of neuroticism have been observed.

As mentioned previously, neuroticism may help individuals to succeed or survive because they have a tendency to pay more attention to negative outcomes or risks. For example, there is evidence that when neuroticism is managed, it might predict student success at university.

On the other hand, neuroticism may have negative effects on behavior if you are unable to manage feelings of worry. In the worst-case scenario, neuroticism may lead to secondary mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.

In fact, we know that those high on the spectrum of neuroticism are at greater risk for mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. A 2013 meta-analysis showed that a large range of clinical mental disorders are related to higher levels of neuroticism.

In general, people who are high on the neuroticism scale react with quick arousal to situations and take a long time to get back to their baseline level. In other words, these individuals live with emotional instability and trouble regulating their behaviors as a result.

How Neuroticism Affects Relationships

How does neuroticism affect relationships? There are a number of negative impacts of neuroticism on the personal relationships of those who have elevated levels of this trait. Let's consider each of these in turn.

Annoying Others

Perhaps the most obvious complaint of those who know people who are high in neuroticism is that their behavior can become annoying to others who are in relationships with that person.

For example, a neurotic person might do the following things that could grate on the nerves of those around them:

  • Have a tendency to complain
  • Be critical of other people
  • Constantly ask for reassurance
  • Be overly dependent on others or ask for help instead of figuring things out for yourself
  • Be a drama queen or make mountains out of molehills

Passing on Worries

If you are high in neuroticism and have children, you might inadvertently pass on your worrying behavior to your children through modeling it to them. For example, if you tell your child that they can't play at the park because they might fall and hurt themselves, they will learn that all situations are dangerous and that they need to be watchful for threats at all times.

Getting in Conflicts

Being high in neuroticism can also lead to conflict with others. For example, if you become enraged over minor mistakes, such as if someone cuts you off while you are driving, then you might end up in a conflict with others. If minor problems send you over the edge, you might yell or become angry at the people you feel have caused you stress.

Some people high in neuroticism might also accuse other people of doing things out of their own worry. For example, without any evidence, you might accuse your spouse of cheating, thus driving them away from you.

Also, if you obsess over minor details and have trouble with perfectionism, then you might not complete tasks that other people ask you to do, thereby creating tension and conflict.

Appearing Unreliable

If you constantly fly off the handle, people will eventually learn that they can't rely on you to be stable. They will feel as though they can't count on you if you are going to panic at the sign of the smallest threat. In other words, if your low tolerance for stress means that any little thing can ruin your day, people will decide that you are not the person to give the job promotion to or the one that they want to spend their life with.

Feeling Guilty

Being highly neurotic can also lead you to feel guilty about things that are not your fault. If you apologize for every little mistake or obsess about things you've done long after it's necessary to worry about them, you may start to push people away. While you might feel as though this guilt is necessary or helpful, it's actually hurting your relationships.

Coping With Neuroticism

How can you cope if you live with a high level of neuroticism? The first step is to recognize that your personality can shift over time. As people age and experience different life events, they may experience shifts, although your biology will still influence your natural tendencies.

That being said, if you are truly struggling with feelings of neuroticism and neurotic behavior, you might benefit from therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help you manage worry or mindfulness to help you manage emotions and stay in the present moment.

Some things you can do on your own include working on practicing daily gratitude so that small annoyances can be viewed from the big picture, as well as engaging in a daily meditation practice.

A Word From Verywell

It's important to keep in mind that having a high level of neuroticism doesn't make you a bad person. If you have a natural tendency toward neurotic behavior, the best thing you can do is to accept the situation and then work on making the best of it.

The positive side of the equation is that it means you are sensitive and aware in a way that some others might not be. You are also likely to be the one who is always looking out for other people and trying to be sensitive to their feelings.

If you can combine these positives with some inner work to learn how to better manage your negative thoughts and emotions, then you can channel your neurotic behavior in the best possible direction so that it serves you rather than detracts from you. In other words, learn your strengths and capitalize on them while at the same time working to mitigate the effects of your weaknesses.

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  1. Ormel J, Jeronimus BF, Kotov R, et al. Neuroticism and common mental disorders: meaning and utility of a complex relationshipClin Psychol Rev. 2013;33(5):686–697. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2013.04.003

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