Neuroticism, one of the Big 5 personality traits, is typically defined as a tendency toward anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and other negative feelings. All personality traits, including neuroticism, exist on a spectrum—some people are just much more neurotic than others. In the context of the Big 5, neuroticism is sometimes described as low emotional stability or negative emotionality.
Some self-deprecating comedians and complainers wear their neuroticism as a badge of honor, but in truth, people with neurotic dispositions are more prone to anxiety, mood disorders, and additional unfavorable social and emotional outcomes.
Neuroticism has been defined somewhat differently by different psychologists, but at its core, it reflects a general tendency toward negative emotions. The term derives from the historic concept of neurosis, which referred to a form of mental illness involving chronic distress.
A person’s level of neuroticism can be assessed by personality tests that ask individuals to rate the extent to which they:
worry about things
are easily disturbed
have frequent mood swings
get irritated easily
often feel blue
… along with other, similar self-descriptions, with higher ratings indicating a higher level of neuroticism. Some systems of organizing the Big 5 traits—which include neuroticism—further divide the traits into multiple sub-traits. One scale, the most recent version of the Big 5 Inventory, separates neuroticism (relabeled as Negative Emotionality) into three facets that each reflect a tendency to feel certain ways:
If you are high (or low) on neuroticism, chances are, you already sense that’s the case. But taking a Big 5 personality test could give you a more concrete measure of how you rate on that trait compared to other people. As is the case with other traits, most people lie somewhere in the middle.
High neuroticism ratings are associated with risk of mental illness and worse outcomes, on average, on measures of health and relationship satisfaction. However, it can be argued that neuroticism exists because it provided advantages (such as sensitivity to threats) over the course of humanity’s evolution.
Research indicates that one’s level of neuroticism—like other personality traits—is shaped partly by genetics, as well as by (largely unaccounted for) environmental influences.
For someone who is highly neurotic, it’s easy to feel trapped by maladaptive thought patterns and to struggle with depression or anxiety.
Is there anything someone can do to make themselves less neurotic? Research suggests that personality traits are not set in stone and can change over the course of a lifetime—particularly after a major life event like getting married or having a child. Whether an individual naturally becomes less neurotic over time or not, however, there are steps one can take to better cope with neuroticism.
As a personality trait, neuroticism represents a relatively stable way of feeling and being—but a proneness to worry and distress can still be recognized and improved. Psychotherapy and mindfulness practices are among the tools that may help someone better cope with distress and even dial down their levels of neuroticism.
Some evidence shows a decrease in neuroticism, on average, as young people enter into adulthood. In particular, life events such as a first romantic relationship and transitioning to work or college from high school are linked to decreases in neuroticism, research suggests.
Painful though it is, the rumination and regret that plagues many people may help them learn from mistakes and alter future behavior—up to a point. There’s evidence that mild to moderate depression may offer similar adaptive benefits.