Why Is Neuroticism So Toxic?

Being highly neurotic increases your risk of anxiety, depression, and inertia.

Posted Feb 03, 2016

 Colin Swan/Wikimedia Commons
"80% of success is showing up." –Woody Allen
Source: Colin Swan/Wikimedia Commons

Many comedians—such as Woody Allen and most of the cast on Seinfeld—are notorious for playing characters who are slightly neurotic or plagued by debilitating neuroses. Although neuroticism is laughable as part of a stand-up act or sitcom, many studies have found that being excessively neurotic has serious consequences.

Experts who study personality traits generally agree that there are five major dimensions of personality called the “Big Five.” Of these five traits, neuroticism is the personality trait most commonly linked to developing nearly all forms of psychopathology. The other four personality traits are: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience.

Typically, neuroticism is characterized by distressing thoughts and worrisome feelings that are disproportionate to the actual circumstances of a person’s life. Based on these definitions: How neurotic are you?

Like most personality traits, levels of neuroticism cover a broad spectrum. In small doses, it is harmless, and may actually serve to keep your life in balance. However, in extreme cases, neuroticism can turn into a clinical diagnosis of psychoneurosisdefined as “a functional disorder in which feelings of anxiety, obsessional thoughts, compulsive acts, and physical complaints without objective evidence of disease, in various degrees and patterns, dominate the personality.”

If you are like millions of people around the globe, you probably experience some degree of neuroticism. Luckily, under most circumstances, you can use mindfulness techniques to guide your thoughts and create explanatory styles that diminish neuroticism. Later in this post, I’ll give you some simple tips on ways to reduce your levels of neuroticism based on lessons I learned as a professional athlete.

Chronic Neuroticism Can Lead to Anxiety, Inertia, Depression, and Death

In 2014, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication found that college students who are highly neurotic don't just avoid taking action, they actually dislike the idea of being proactive. This research identifies that neuroticism is, in many ways, the antithesis of openness to experience.

For this study, about 4,000 college students from 19 countries, who were identified as being neurotic, were asked if taking action is "positive, favorable, or good." The researchers concluded that neurotics consider taking action less favorably (and inaction more favorably) than people who were identified as non-neurotics. This may explain why highly neurotic people often lack gusto and avoid taking steps to seize the day.  

Neuroticism is also associated with morbidity and mortality. In 2007, researchers at Purdue University found that highly neurotic men die younger than their mellower counterparts. The study, "Personality Change Influences Mortality in Older Men," was published in the journal Psychological Science.

Recently, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “Positive Attitudes About Aging May Be a 'Fountain of Youth',” based on a new study that found that negative attitudes about getting older increase someone's risk of being frail in older age. The bottom line about avoiding frailty in old age appears to be maintaining strong social networks and staying open to experience—while minimizing neuroticism—throughout your lifespan.

Image Point Fr/Shutterstock
“If you think you can, you can. If you think you can't, you're right.” ― Mary Kay Ash
Source: Image Point Fr/Shutterstock

Over the years, other studies have shown that neuroticism is associated with increased substance abuse, anxiety, and mood disorders. Now, for the first time, another new study has identified that young people who rate high on the personality trait of neuroticism are also likely to develop both anxiety and depression disorders.

The recent study from Northwestern University and UCLA breaks new ground by using a revolutionary technique to identify how the extent of someone’s neuroticism can predict his or her propensity to develop mood and anxiety disorders.

The January 2016 study, “Interaction of CD38 Variant and Chronic Interpersonal Stress Prospectively Predicts Social Anxiety and Depression Symptoms Over 6 Years,” was published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science. In a press release, Richard Zinbarg, lead author of the study and director of clinical psychology at Northwestern, said:

"The study's results strongly suggest that neuroticism is more sensitive to threat than emotional reactivity ... Neuroticism was an especially strong predictor of the particularly pernicious state of developing both anxiety and depressive disorders. It's been my professional dream to be able to prevent the development of anxiety disorders and depression in people who would have otherwise experienced them.

We can identify those kids that we should be targeting—that's the first implication. It should be possible to reduce simultaneously, through a single intervention, the risk for anxiety as well as for depression and help people cope much better.”

The study included 547 participants recruited as high school juniors at two Chicago and Los Angeles high schools. Zinbarg said, "These results point the way toward a relatively cost-effective and broad-based program of prevention."

The goal of Zinbarg's team is to design interventions that would not only prevent depression or anxiety disorders but could reduce risks for both maladies by identifying the common risk factor of neuroticism. In the future, high school students could be given a questionnaire on neuroticism—either via paper and pencil or administered online—that determines their standing on that personality trait as a red flag for targeted interventions.

Insights on Overcoming Neuroticism from the World of Sports

Tennis legend Arthur Ashe famously said, “There is a syndrome in sports called 'paralysis by analysis.'" As an athlete, I learned early in my career that excessive neuroticism was an insidious form of self-sabotage that could derail my performance and prevent me from becoming a champion. I've spent a lot of time deconstructing the components of neuroticism. After decades of physical and psychological practice, I've mastered a variety of ways to snuff out my neurotic tendencies.

My father was a nationally ranked tennis player, and neurosurgeon, who taught me a lot about overcoming neuroticism. In the 1970s, my dad really wanted me to become the next Björn Borg. Although my father put a lot of pressure on me to succeed as a young tennis player, he also pounded it into my head that being neurotic was public enemy #1. As a coach, my dad was constantly giving me tips on how to have grace under pressure.

As both a tennis champion and brain surgeon, my dad understood that having grace under pressure was the key to his success. He also learned that neuroticism is contagious. In the operating room, my father was notorious for dismissing any surgical assistant who was acting nervous or neurotic. In sport and life, I learned from my dad to distance myself from people who are worrywarts. l also learned the importance of minimizing these character traits and thought patterns inside my own head.

Anytime someone becomes too neurotic and begins to overthink his or her performance—both on and off the court—it blocks the ability to get in 'the zone' where you create flow and superfluidity. My personal experience of battling neuroticism peaked my curiosity about the detriments of being neurotic and led me to develop prescriptive ways to minimize neuroticism. On pp. 274-275 of The Athlete’s Way, I write,

“Neuroticism should never be a part of your game plan or a part of your life. Strive to eliminate it because being neurotic is the key trait associated with rejection sensitivity and fear of failure . . . People with neurotic tendencies tend to hold on to a bad mood longer than other people. Scott Hemenover, an assistant professor of psychology at Kansas State University, performed a study and found that people with different personality types have different rates of mood decay.

"Maintaining a negative mood for a long period of time is harmful to your health. People think that getting stressed and anxious is bad for you. It isn’t how stressed you are, but how long you are stressed,” Hemenover says. “Staying stressed for a long time can impair your immune and cardiovascular functions.”

People who tend to stay in a bad mood for a long time can learn strategies to help them snap out of it faster. “Neurotics see the world as a nasty place. If you teach them to view the world in a positive way, and to think their way out of feeling bad by rephrasing things in a positive way, it can help their health," Hemenover says. The bottom line is to change the script in your head. Picture the neural networks inside your head and disengage the neurotic ones."

As an athlete, I have a wide range of tricks up my sleeve that I use to avoid neuroticism and negative emotions. The most basic is to recite mantras or quotations and to use my imagination to create a parallel universe filled with pragmatic optimism and positive emotions. 

For example, after seeing the movie Jaws as a kid, I developed a neurotic fear of sharks that caused me to avoid swimming in the ocean at all costs. As an Ironman triathlete, most races require that you swim 2.4 miles in the ocean. The most terrifying swim I've ever completed took place in the breeding grounds of the Great White sharks at Ironman South Africa. I used a variety of tricks to overcome my shark phobia.

First, instead of filling my head with the John Williams' soundtrack from Jaws and seeing myself as prey from the underwater perspective of a Great White, I would hum the upbeat pop song "Cherish" by Madonna and pretend that I had a mermaid tail and was in a Herb Ritts video. Secondly, I put myself in a trance by focusing on my breathing and the physical sensation of the water against my skin to stay in the reality of the present tense.

I also kept postcards of all the Ironman swims I had successfully completed on my fridge door as a type of talisman that signified that I had returned home safely from all of these odysseys. Over time, facing my fear of sharks head on, "slaying the dragon," and living to tell about it, diluted my neuroticism and anxiety to the point that it became a non-issue.

Another simple visualization that I use regularly is to imagine that my positive thoughts are covered with Velcro and superglue, which allows them to stick to my neurons. Conversely, I visualize my negative emotions and neuroticism as being Teflon-coated and covered in chicken fat, which prevents these thoughts from sticking to my mind. The core tenets of these techniques can be used to "decondition" phobias and neuroticism for people from all walks of life. 

Finding Your Sweet Spot Between Neuroticism and Being a Pollyanna

 Debono66/Wikimedia Commons
"I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination." –Jimmy Dean
Source: Debono66/Wikimedia Commons

Neuroticism is necessary for human survival. Your life would become a trainwreck if you didn’t have periods of being conscientious and slightly neurotic. That said, it’s often a difficult tightrope walk to navigate the thin line between not giving a damn, and caring too much about things that are out of your control, which leads to neuroticism.

In my opinion, being a Pollyanna—who always pretends that everything is A-OK when in fact it's not—is the polar opposite of neuroticism. I strive to find the sweet spot between these two extremes which I identify as being a "pragmatic optimist." 

As an athlete, I needed to be dialed-in and a control freak about certain aspects of training and competition such as my equipment, nutrition, and hydration. For example, I always lace my running shoes fastidiously so they fit like boxing gloves that allow me to pound my feet into the ground without any slippage. I am never laid-back about lacing up my sneakers prior to a race ... But once they're laced up, and the starting gun is fired, I take a very laissez-faire attitude during any triathlon or marathon. 

Over the decades of being a professional athlete, I learned how to find my “middle way" between extreme states of mind. As a fundamental concept of Buddhism and other philosophies, I interpret the “middle way” as navigating between two extremes to find the mean. In 330 B.C., Aristotle alluded to the principle of finding your “middle way.” In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes, 

“We must draw ourselves away in the opposite direction, for by pulling away from error we shall reach the middle, as men do when they straighten warped timber ... How we face dangerous situations, either accustoming ourselves to fear or confidence, makes us brave or cowardly. In a word then, activities produce similar dispositions. Therefore we must give a certain character to our activities. In short, the habits we form make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference.”

Aristotle believed that our habits of thought and our habits of behavior make us who we are. He used the term moral virtue to describe an ideal mindset and believed that how you think is reflected in your actions, and vice versa.

Who do you want to be? How will you get there? Aristotle’s answer to these questions lies in his explanation of the mean. By determining which vice (extreme) you tend towards and then moving toward the other extreme, you can reach your personalized middle way, or mean. 

Only you know your personal, and often private, vices and how you can move toward the other extreme to find your mean. Identify the yaw of your life vessel and take appropriate actions. Finding your personal mean between 'virtue and vice' allows you to sail through tempests and tidal waves. Find your mean so that you can venture far from shore and explore new territories without neuroticism. Finding your mean is about optimizing traits, such as openness to experience, so that you can live your life to the fullest.

Conclusion: Quotations and Mantras Can Neutralize Neuroticism

I've had my antennae up for quotations and sayings that help me neutralize my neuroticism for decades. Throughout my athletic career, I would write down quotations that resonated with me on fluorescent green index cards and keep them in big stacks on my nightstand. I memorized these quotations before bed so that I could use the nugget of wisdom held in each idea to rearrange my explanatory style during circumstances that might trigger neuroticism in the future. 

In some ways, it's ironic that one of my all-time favorite mantras for combating the potential inertia of neuroticism—"80 percent of success is showing up"—comes from Woody Allen. But, actually, the fact that Allen came up with this sage advice, is most likely because he personally used the saying to overcome the paralyzing power of his own neuroticism.

Whenever I'm full of dread, or facing a daunting challenge such as an Ironman triathlon, public speaking engagement, or interview ... I say to myself in the third person, "Chris, 80 percent of success is showing up. You don't have to hit it out of the park today. Just show up and give it your best shot."

Another useful saying to avoid being highly neurotic was coined by my colleague and fellow marathon runner, Melaney Collett, who often says "control your controllables." This saying dovetails perfectly with the gist of the Serenity Prayer and is a great reminder of the importance of letting go of the things you can't control, and focusing on the things you can.  

The Serenity Prayer is widely used by people in recovery 12-step programs as a mantra to stay sober. But, the Serenity Prayer can also help minimize feelings of neuroticism anytime you're feeling too neurotic. Personally, I find that saying an agnostic version of The Serenity Prayer helps me maintain my pragmatic optimism whenever I feel neuroticism creeping in.

The Serenity Prayer

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change.
Courage to change the things I can.
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Anytime you feel yourself slipping into a state of neuroticism, I would recommend that you: Stop. Take a deep breath. Recite the Serenity Prayer. And take inventory of what you can and cannot control. Then, let go of any negative thoughts and tackle the specific controllables of the situation with vigorous determination. Hopefully, some of this advice will help you minimize your neuroticism, take the bull by the horns, and seize the day.

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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