You can see them coming from a mile away, angsty energy radiating like a nuclear bomb. That friend, neighbor, or coworker who obsessively analyzes every thought, feeling, and action, and then analyzes their analysis. And if there isn’t an audible narration going along with daily life, mapping out the possible negative consequences of every future action, you can be sure a permanent proverbial thought bubble hangs overhead. You know them, you love-hate them, the Woody Allens or Larry Davids of the world, better known in clinical terms as neurotics.

What is Neuroticism?

Classified as one of the Big Five personality traits, or the OCEAN model (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) psychologists look at to define personality, account for individual differences, and predict wellbeing, “neuroticism has to do with the ways people experience negative emotion in response to stress,” says clinical psychologist Kristin Naragon-Gainey, PhD, associate professor of psychology in The University of Buffalo’s Department of Psychology .

“Two people could be faced with the same situation and the neurotic one will put a negative spin on the experience and produce a stronger reaction to stress—with feelings like sadness, anxiety, fear, hostility, irritability, and anger,” Dr. Naragon-Gainey says. Often, their level of worry or sadness isn’t commensurate with what’s actually happening.

The Upside to Being Neurotic

A little neuroticism can be good for the soul. “These personality types tend to be intelligent, humorous, have more realistic (if cynical) expectations, a greater self-awareness, drive and conscientiousness, they take fewer risks, and have a strong need to provide for others,” says psychiatrist Grant H. Brenner M.D., FAPA, co-founder of Neighborhood Psychiatry, in Manhattan. And, according to research, neurotic people are more likely to be creative thinkers.

Neurotics also possess more emotional depth. “They have more experience handling negative emotions, which, though difficult, can also make them deeper, and facilitate empathy and understanding for other people’s struggles,” Dr. Naragon-Gainey explains.

Then there’s the evolutionary standpoint, which explains why neurotic people tend to think ahead and are more likely to be prepared for possible negative outcomes. “The reason we pay attention to negative emotions is because they’re informative of the environment or perceived danger,” Dr. Naragon-Gainey says.

When Neuroticism Goes South

While some neuroticism is healthy, because it’s associated with heightened self-criticism, “It can become a ‘crash and burn’ dynamic, where negative beliefs about yourself lead to ineffective social functioning, which then confirms those negative beliefs, and further re-enforces neurotic tendencies,” Dr. Brenner says.

For example, take the coworker who’s a superstar at work but tends to worry a lot about her performance. Then all of a sudden, she gets a little negative feedback from her boss, which to her feels like a huge criticism. She responds by worrying more to the point that she’s so consumed with self-evaluation and anxiety, she can’t focus anymore and calls in sick. In the end, she creates her own self-fulfilling prophesy.

While extreme, this type of maladaptive response can lead to difficulty in relationships, problems keeping jobs, an overall decreased satisfaction with life, depression and anxiety disorders, and a decreased life expectancy.

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How to be Less Neurotic

To keep your levels of perceived threats from reaching apocalyptic-level preparedness, learning some simple techniques to shift your mindset can go a long way towards saving your sanity.

  • Be mindful. Instead of approaching neurotic patterns of thinking, well, neurotically, take a step back as an observer and think about what’s causing the angst. Studies show mindfulness can reduce how often you have negative thoughts and increase your ability to let go of them. “Learning to observe yourself at times of intense emotion more objectively and asking questions like, ‘What am I thinking? How am I feeling? How am I responding?’ makes it easier to take a broader perspective,” Dr. Naragon-Gainey says.
  • Take some deep breaths. It may sound totally trite but pausing to take a few deep breaths can actually help you create some distance from the intensity of the experience, and you might realize that your reaction is out of whack with the situation itself, Dr. Gainey says.
  • Practice self-acceptance. “Self-acceptance prevents us from getting stuck on negative points, allowing healthy grief, and limiting the vicious cycles of self-recrimination,” Dr. Brenner says. “Ultimately, self-acceptance translates into optimism, self-appreciation, and an increased sense of self-efficacy,” he says. Go ahead and give yourself a little loving kindness and compassion; you’re doing the best you can.
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Last Updated: Feb 26, 2020