What Is a Neurotic Personality?

Characteristics and Causes of a Neuroticism

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Neuroticism is a core personality trait characterized by emotional instability, irritability, anxiety, self-doubt, depression, and other negative feelings. Like other personality traits, neuroticism exists on a continuum, which means that people can be high, low, or somewhere in the middle in terms of this trait.

Neuroticism can affect relationships in various ways. Neurotic tendencies, for example, can sometimes cause friction. Learn how neuroticism can affect relationships, as well as a few ways to keep the potentially negative impact of this personality trait to a minimum.

What Is Neuroticism?

Neuroticism is a trait that reflects a person's level of emotional stability. It is often defined as a negative personality trait involving negative emotions, poor self-regulation (an inability to manage urges), trouble dealing with stress, a strong reaction to perceived threats, and the tendency to complain.

People with neuroticism often become easily aroused when stimulated or have a reduced ability to calm themselves down when upset or worried. This concept has roots in Freudian times but was later expanded upon by Hans Eysenck and others.

Neuroticism is one of the "Big Five" personality traits, along with extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness (OCEAN or CANOE are acronyms sometimes used to remember these traits). These are enduring personality traits that serve as common ways of categorizing people.

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, about the person and their personality characteristics. This process presents some challenges in identifying its true prevalence.

Additionally, because neuroticism is 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 that ranges from very low to very high. In other words, we all exist somewhere on the spectrum when it comes to being neurotic in our behavior or having a neurotic personality.

Common Neurotic Traits

How do you know where you fall on the neuroticism spectrum? People who are at the higher end are often described as having a neurotic personality and tend to show the following characteristics:

  • An overall tendency toward negative emotions
  • Feels of anxiety or irritability
  • Poor emotional stability
  • Feelings of self-doubt
  • Being self-conscious or shy
  • Experiencing moodiness, sadness, or depression
  • Easily stressed or upset; unable to handle stress well
  • Dramatic changes in feelings
  • Lack of resilience or difficulty bouncing back after adversity
  • Chronic worrying about a variety of things
  • Tendency to interpret neutral situations as threatening
  • Often view minor problems as overwhelming
  • Difficulty controlling urges or emotions in the moment
  • Easily becoming jealous or feeling envy about what others have
  • Frustration or anger about everyday occurrences
  • Feelings of fear or guilt over minor things

Causes of Neuroticism

What might cause one person to score higher in neuroticism than another? Here are a few factors to consider.

  • Brain function: A smaller-scale study found that after viewing unpleasant images, people rating higher in neuroticism had lower oxygen levels in their lateral prefrontal cortex than those with lower neuroticism ratings. This area of the brain plays a role in a variety of cognitive processes.
  • Childhood trauma: Experiencing some type of trauma later in life doesn't appear to increase neuroticism, but exposure to these types of events when you're younger does seem to have this effect.
  • Climate: If you live in a climate that is prone to more extreme weather patterns, it may increase your risk of neurotic personality traits—potentially due to poorer dopamine function as a result of climatic stress.
  • Gender: One multicultural personality study found that women scored higher for this trait in all of the 22 countries studied. Although, the gap between genders does appear to be smaller in the online world. It's thought that this is because you can be more anonymous online, which reduces worries over what others might think of you.
  • Genetics: Some research suggests that neuroticism is inherited, much the same as we inherit other traits such as our height. Thus, to a certain degree, we may be born with a tendency toward this particular personality trait.
  • Survival: It has even been argued that neuroticism may be rooted in evolution as, 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, which is an involuntary response to loud noises. This suggests that people who are high in neuroticism may be genetically wired to react more strongly to outside stimuli.

How Neuroticism Affects Behavior

As mentioned previously, neuroticism may help people survive because they have a tendency to pay more attention to negative outcomes or risks. Research has also connected this trait with higher levels of academic success.

On the other hand, a neurotic personality can have negative effects on behavior, such as if you are unable to manage feelings of worry. In some cases, neuroticism may contribute to the development of mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.

A 2019 study adds that neuroticism was the only "Big Five" personality trait that could significantly predict participants' cognitive decline. This decline was assessed by looking at health behaviors such as whether the participant took action to maintain their wellness or if they engaged in substance misuse.

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

How Neuroticism Affects Relationships

Neuroticism can have negative impacts on personal relationships. Here are a few of the ways in which this personality trait can affect how you relate to the people in your life.

Higher Level of Annoyance

People who are high in neuroticism can sometimes be seen as annoying. For example, a person with neurotic behaviors might grate on the nerves of those around them by:

  • Being critical of others
  • Being overly dependent on others, or asking for help instead of figuring things out for themselves
  • Complaining a lot
  • Constantly asking for reassurance
  • Taking small issues and making them out to be bigger than they are

Greater Number of Conflicts

Being high in neuroticism can also lead to conflict with others. If you become enraged over someone cutting you off in traffic, for example, you may decide to confront them. If minor problems send you over the edge, you might also yell or become angry at the people you feel have caused you stress.

Some people high in neuroticism accuse others of doing things out of their own worry. This could show up in the form of accusing your spouse of cheating without any evidence, driving them away from you. Or you may blame friends for things in an overly aggressive way, which can hurt your relationships.

Also, if you obsess over minor details and always strive for perfectionism, you might not complete tasks that other people ask you to do. This, too, can lead to tension and conflict.

Appearing Unreliable

A neurotic personality is characterized by poor emotional stability, which can cause others to view someone with this trait as being unreliable.

If you constantly fly off the handle, for instance, people may feel that they can't rely on you to keep a calm head when faced with adversity. They may fear that they won't be able to count on you in difficult situations if you are going to panic at the sign of the smallest threat.

Having a low tolerance for stress can cause leaders at work to decide that you are not the right person for the upcoming job promotion, or it may cause a love interest to decide that you are not the one that they want to spend their life with.

Increased Feelings of Guilt

Someone with high neurotic scores may feel guilty about things that are not their fault. This guilt can cause them to apologize for every little mistake or obsess about things they've done long after it's necessary to worry about them, which can inadvertently start to push people away.

While people with high neuroticism might feel as though this guilt is necessary or helpful, it can actually hurt their relationships. A tendency toward feelings of guilt can also be harmful to mental health, increasing your risk of anxiety and depression.

Reduced Well-Being in Your Children

If you have a neurotic personality and have children, you have a greater tendency to overprotect them. You might tell them that they can't play at the park because they could fall and hurt themselves, for instance. Or you may make decisions for them because "you know best."

Overprotective parenting can negatively impact a child's well-being by causing the child to be more dependent on their caregivers, making them more aversive to risk, and not allowing them to develop effective coping skills—all while increasing their risk of developing psychological disorders and increasing their anxiety.

Coping With a Neurotic Personality

If you have a high level of neuroticism and are concerned that it may be harming your relationships, there are a few things you can do to better cope with this personality trait.

Know That Change Is Possible

Although personality traits are considered to be relatively stable over time, they can and do change. They can also be managed to help reduce their negative effects and increase their positive effects. Recognizing that you have some control over how you respond to situations is a good first step to choosing healthier responses.

Keep a Gratitude Journal

Writing out the things you are grateful for helps remind you that even if your life isn't perfect, there is still a lot to be thankful for. Make it a habit to write in this journal every morning or every night. Use it to remember all of the good that life has to offer.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness can help you manage your emotions by keeping you in the present moment. Being mindful provides other benefits as well, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing feelings of stress.

Work on Your Problem-Solving Skills

Problem-solving involves looking at an issue objectively, then considering viable solutions. This practice removes emotion from the equation, reducing the tendency for a negative response. It also helps you look for ways to resolve things that bother you versus letting them pile up.

Find Ways to Relieve Stress

Chronic stress can make you feel more negative. So, find a way to let your stress out, making room for more positive emotions. Join a gym, start a meditation practice, take up yoga, or get in touch with your creative side and de-stress by painting, drawing, or making some type of art.

Seek Professional Help

If you have difficulties with feelings of neuroticism or neurotic behavior, you might benefit from professional help. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one option to help you manage your worries, for instance. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) might be another, helping you to better deal with your negative emotions.

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. The positive side of the equation is that 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 others 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, you can channel a neurotic behavior in the best possible direction so that it serves you rather than detracts from your well-being. Learn your strengths and capitalize on them while, at the same time, working to mitigate the negative effects of this trait.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is an example of a neurotic person?

    An example of a neurotic person is someone who is often self-critical and experiences more negative emotions that others. They doubt themselves, are often moody, and may have dramatic changes in their moods or feelings. They may obessess over what others are thinking, have high levels of irritability, and overreact to minor problems.

  • What are neurotic people good at?

    While neuroticism can cause problems, neurotic people also tend to be more creative. Because they also tend to spend more time thinking about many things, including what others are thinking and feeling, they also tend to have a great deal of emotional depth and empathy.

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Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.