A Personality Trait
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | November 23, 2020
Neuroticism is one of the five personality factors measured by the Big-Five Personality Inventory. Neuroticism is healthy within normal ranges. However, and higher levels can be harmful to relationships and health.
Neuroticism, a personality trait, is often confused with a diagnosed disorder. Personality tests score neuroticism on a sliding scale. We all have some neurotic tendencies. Neuroticism is not a problem unless we possess too little or too much this much misaligned trait. Most people score in an acceptable range able to utilize their neurotic tendencies to effectively navigate life.
The Big-Five Personality Model
The Big Five personality model is a five-factor measure of personality traits. The model is useful to research and helpful for therapists determining method of treatment for clients. Neuroticism is not, nor any of the other four personality traits (conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness, and extraversion), inherently bad. The five factor model determines a personality profile through a series of questions, displaying final results on a five point spectrum. Researchers use personality scores as a tool to find associations to mental illnesses, crime, and other social and psychology categories.
NEO PI-R is the primary inventory used. The NEO PI-R is a 240 question inventory, using a five point Likert scale (Strongly agree, agree, etc.…). Standard inventories are just tools. The NEO-PI-R is the generally accepted standard for personality research. Using scores from the NEO PI-R, social scientists discovered that “dimensions of personality has important consequences for happiness, health, and human achievement—all components of well-being” (2016, Little, location 602).
Our personality scores correlate with emotional style—the colorful flavor of emotions we have in reaction to experience. Inventory scores provide a framework to understand ourselves and others. Personality scores are not perfect, only measuring at a single point in time. Inventories are highly subjective, often using self-reported answers. Answers are biased and suggestable. Events immediately prior to completing an inventory prime the mind and alter results.
Personality traits have a biological base. Experience intertwines with interpreting hardware in the brain. We view experiences through the biological lenses of genetic givens. However, inventory scores are not fixed; they are not an unyielding boundary. They simply are a tool to enlighten understanding and fuel reflection.
"Inventory scores provide a framework to understand ourselves and others."
What does a score high in neuroticism mean?
High neuroticism scores indicate a temperament that negatively reacts to stress. Emotions attributed to neuroticism include anxiety, fear, irritability, anger, and sadness. Brian Little, an internationally acclaimed scholar and speaker in the field of personality and motivational psychology, explains, “the central core of neuroticism is sensitivity to negative cues in the environment” (location, 703). We express neuroticism through hypersensitivity to real and imagined threats, subsequently high neuroticism is associated with elevated stress.
In an insightful 2014 paper, researchers add that “neuroticism is also characterized by the pervasive perception that the world is a dangerous place, along with beliefs about one’s inability to manage or cope…” (Barlow et al., p. 481). A key point is that people who score high in neuroticism “are more prone to anxiety, depression, self-consciousness, and emotional vulnerability” (Little, 2016, location 703).
Benefits of Neuroticism
At first glance, neuroticism appears bad. However, sensitivity to environmental threats has redeeming value. Many discomforting emotions have foundational wisdom, directing us away from hurtful engagements. Author and anxiety researcher Scott Strossel points out, “those who are unable to experience anxiety are, generally speaking, more deeply pathological—and more dangerous to society—than those who experience it acutely or irrationally; they’re sociopaths” (2015, location 164). Some neuroticism is healthy. Charles Darwin noted that species that “fear rightly” increase their chance of survival (location 312).
Neurotic personality types tend to be intelligent, creative, have greater self-awareness, and are more realistic with expectations. They tend to be motivated. Basically, they make good employees and parents, up to a point. At higher levels of neuroticism, the anxiety overwhelms and adaptive behaviors harm rather than help. They begin to “fear wrongly.”
When Neuroticism Turns Bad
Problems associated with neuroticism arise when adaptive responses to emotional arousal interfere with future wellness. Negative affect produces a sense of urgency for resolution (Deyoung, 2017). The discomfort prompts impulsive escapes to down regulate arousal (e.g., overeating, addictions, or harsh communications). Heightened levels of neuroticism strangle the possessor, leaving them lashing out for relief. Urgency invites maladaptive responses magnifying future anxiety that destroy relationships, ruin careers, and weaken immunity. Neuroticism, along with the other personality traits, are only destructive when expressed in the extreme.
Is Neuroticism a Learned Behavior?
Nature-nurture arguments have existed for centuries. Personality has a complex intertwining of biologically inherited machinery and learning. Our biology impacts how we see the world; how we see the world impacts what we gain from experience. Internal machinery, exposure and interpretation spin in a cycle, each impacting the other and forming definable traits.
Steven Pinker explains, “most of the 18,000 adjectives for personality traits in an unabridged dictionary can be tied to one of these five dimensions, including such sins and flaws as being aimless, careless, conforming, impatient, narrow, rude, self-pitying, selfish, suspicious, uncooperative, and undependable. All five of the major personality dimensions are heritable, with perhaps 40 to 50 percent of the variation in a typical population tied to differences in their genes” (2003, location 1306).
Dr. Little also emphasizes the significant neurobiological base for personality. He, however, explains that personality traits are only partially determined by genetic factors. He continues, “personality is more complex than the simple acting out of our biological dispositions” (2016, location 104).
A clear biological basis for those high in neuroticism is a hypersensitive amygdala. Barlow et al. describe, “the genetic components of neuroticism are linked to the neurobiological tendency for heighted reactivity in emotions generating structures, most notably amygdala hyperexcitability, and reduced or inefficient inhibitory control by prefrontal structures” (2014, p. 483). Barlow et al. estimate that genetic contributions compose between 40% to 60% of variance in this personality trait. (p. 483).
The amygdala is primarily involved in the ‘fight or flight’ response. When inherited gene coding creates hypersensitize biological components, ‘fight and flight’ reactions are easily ignited. These biological propensities lead to foundational differences early in life. Our development is not only shaped by internal reactions but the reactions of others to our reactions. This cycle of responses to events and others to our reactions sculpt the details of all our relationships. A hyper-sensitive baby will have a different relationship with his or her parents than a content child, especially considering that the sensitive child inherited the hyper-sensitivity predisposition.
Well-meaning therapist and arm-chair psychologist are infamous for ignoring the significant biological impact that forms heightened neurotic tendencies. In ignorance, they suggest antidotal remedies such as, “don’t take everything so serious.” Physicians and scientists, on the other hand, tend to ignore neuroplasticity and the continual development of the brain. They are prone to only prescribe medication to calm unruly anxiety, ignoring the years of accumulating adaptations that accompanied the anxiety.
I found two books (First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A Journey Through Anxiety by Sarah Wilson; and My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel) that combine extensive research with personal experience of anxiety. These authors bring the nature-nurture complexity to life.
How to cope with high levels of neuroticism?
A car with mechanically defunct alignment pulls to the right or left. We can still keep the car in the middle of the lane by holding tight to the steering wheel and fighting against natural inclinations. Some biological mechanisms work the same way. They don’t perfectly glide down the middle of the road. Often a correct diagnosis can squelch the overactive system with the correct medication at the appropriate dose. But as experienced by Scott Stossel and Sarah Wilson, the journey is not always simple. They both found themselves in a continuous battle against biological tendencies, even when treated with medication.
Coping with hypersensitive systems is partially achieved through emotional regulation (see Emotional Regulation). No matter what our pre-disposition, we can collect and utilize a variety of tools to mitigate and sometimes relieve stressful emotions, limiting the damage of maladaptive responses.
Mindfulness. Mindfulness practices reduce negative thoughts, helping the mind disengage, soothe the amygdala, allowing the prefrontal cortex to get back online. Mindfulness is taking a step back and become an observer. Alan Fruzzetti suggests that stepping back opens space to describe an experience. The describing then helps down regulate the emotion (Fruzzetti, location 227). We describe; not judge (see Focus on Feelings).
Shift Attention. In their fabulous book on self-control, Roy Baumeister, Todd Heatherton, and Dianne Tice emphasize that shifting attention is a primary technique for self-regulation. They explain that management of attention is crucial (1994, p. 33). Shifting attention moves attention from the disturbing event to something less lethal. Daniel Siegel explains that shifting attention alters information and energy flow (2020, location 1192).
Take a Deep Breath. Sarah Wilson explains, “deep, controlled breathing communicates to the body that everything is okay, which down regulates the stress response, slowing heart rate, diverting blood back to the brain and the digestive system and promoting feelings of calm” (2018. Location 1029). Beyond the biological messages to the body, focusing on the breath also shifts attention, breaks a cycle, and gives the mind space to refocus. (see Mindful Breathing)
Self-Compassion. Studies show that self-compassion activates the feel-good hormones oxytocin and endorphin which in turn shuts down the threat system (location 1029). Susan David wrote that, “Self-compassion is the antidote to shame” (2016, Location 911) and Gabor Maté says that compassionate attention allows us to see ourselves as someone who is scared; someone who has been hurt (2011, location 4645). (See Start with Compassion for more on this topic).
The Blessing and Curse of Neuroticism
Events trigger responses. We need to evaluate and discern appropriate action. Anxiety is part of our biological system to direct effective action. Our neurotic tendency to fret over dangers and re-evaluate personal behaviors has adaptive value. “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” wrote Sören Kierkegaard. He famously proclaimed, “there would be no anxiety without possibility.” Neuroticism is a gift essential for wise action. Heightened neuroticism is also a curse that can unnecessarily spike emotion. Our job, no matter where we fall on neurotic spectrum, is to harness the power, directing impulses towards the better life we seek.
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Barlow, D., Ellard, K., Sauer-Zavala, S., Bullis, J., & Carl, J. (2014). The Origins of Neuroticism. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(5), 481-496.
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David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Avery; First Edition.
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Fruzzetti, A. (2006). The High-Conflict Couple: A Dialectical Behavior Therapy Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy, and Validation. New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition.
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Pinker, S. (2003) The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.
Siegel, D. J. (2020). The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Third edition.
Strossel, S. (2015). My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. Vintage; Reprint edition.
Wilson, S. (2018). First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety. Dey Street Books.