Picture this: It’s Monday morning. You get dressed, have breakfast, check to see all the stove burners are in the upright position, lock the front door, and leave for work. Then, as you’re sitting on the train, a nagging thought starts to creep in, “did I really turn all the burners off?”

What if, despite your meticulous morning ritual, you inadvertently hit one of the dials on the way out and didn’t notice? And, it’s cold out so you closed all the windows. But, if gas fills the apartment and your dog, who’s suffering from a heart condition, passes out before her walker gets there in the afternoon no one would find her in time…and the doomsday play by play drones on.

No, this isn’t an episode of Seinfeld, (although, really, it could be) this is a glimpse of a neurotic mindset spiraling into obsessive depths. Sound familiar?

Well, let’s face it, neuroticism can provide fodder for more-than-a-few laughs and even has some redeeming qualities (neurotic people tend to be more sensitive, meticulous, and prepared), all that unnecessary angst can take a toll.

The Negatives of Neuroticism

“Neuroticism produces a heightened perception of a potential threat and an activity to avoid it,” says clinical psychologist Gregg Henriques, Ph.D. director of the Combined Clinical and School Psychology Doctoral Program at James Madison University. “At an emotional level, it can cause unease, anxiety, depression, hostile irritability, shame, and guilt.”

And, as studies show, it can also predict depression and anxiety. “Depression and anxiety are partly defined by experiencing negative emotions to an intense degree with more sadness, worry, fear, and anxiety,” says clinical psychologist Kristin Naragon-Gainey, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in The University of Buffalo’s Department of Psychology. “When people structure their lives around how to manage these emotions, it can impact functioning and make it harder to enjoy things because they’re more tuned in to what could go wrong, which only ends up creating more worry and depression,” she says.

Additionally, “highly neurotic people have a much lower threshold for experiencing depression and anxiety,” Dr. Henriques says. “They often feel compelled to react to events based on a charge of emotion that’s maladaptive and impulsive.”

How to Change Neurotic Thinking

But what if by simply changing your thought process you could become a little less neurotic? It’s all about shifting negative emotional reactivity into a mindset that’s stable, adaptive, and responsive to a situation, Dr. Henriques says. This doesn’t mean a complete personality overhaul, but, according to research, taking action and implementing behaviors (like the following) on the reg can help you shift your thinking when a bout of neuroticism strikes.

  • Create a thought bubble for yourself. Basically, take the position of an objective observer, well, of yourself. “Going above and beyond yourself to think about what’s happening helps you understand who you are in reaction to it and creates curiosity rather than critical or controlling feelings,” Dr. Henriques says. Ask yourself questions like, “What am I feeling? What’s happened to elicit these feelings? “How do I understand myself in relation to these feelings.” This will help you become detached from the situation and think more clearly.
  • Change your narrative. Instead of telling yourself things like, “I can’t handle this,” or
    “This is horrible,” tweaking your language to say something more accepting like, “It’s unfortunate, but I’ll cope,” helps contextualize the feeling and emphasizes the capacity to accept and grow from it in an adaptive way, Dr. Henriques says. “Your emotion system will respond to how your cognitive language system frames an issue.”
  • Sit with the negative thought. It’s a given: The more you try to avoid negative emotions or things that upset you, the more they tend to increase, Dr. Naragon-Gainey says. “Tolerating negative emotions when they come up and letting them fade away naturally helps keep you calm and your reactions in check. Experiencing negative emotions isn’t harmful, it’s what you do with them that can be problematic,” she says.

So, when you feel your neurosis rearing its ugly head, start talking to yourself (yes, we give you permission). Trust us, a little internal (or external) dialogue spoken in a reflective way can help keep you honest and guide you towards healthy ways of being.


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Last Updated: Aug 17, 2020