Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Upside of Neuroticism

It may help you live longer.

Source: Pixabay

Anxiety. Worry. Fear. Unabating distress. These states of being probably don't strike you as experiences that could boost health and longevity. Nor do they feel at all uplifting for folks who regularly harbor these emotions. As research shows, people whose personalities exhibit high levels of neuroticism (meaning they ruminate, fret, and predominately display a negative temperament) tend to rate their health as poorer than people whose personalities exhibit lower levels of the trait. But before you (like some researchers) infer that neuroticism lends itself to higher rates of mortality, you may wish to consider a new study that suggests the opposite: According to recently published research spearheaded by Catharine R. Gale, being neurotic may, in some cases, extend your lifespan.

Gale and and her colleagues took a closer look at the connection between neuroticism and mortality among 321,456 people registered with the UK Biobank. (This was a longitudinal study with an average follow up time of 6.2 years.)

Participants were asked to complete questionnaires measuring the personality trait of neuroticism as well as to report how they rated their overall health, whether they'd ever been diagnosed with a serious or chronic medical condition (think: heart disease, cancer, diabetes) and what health behaviors they did or did not engage in (i.e., eating vegetables, exercising regularly, drinking, or smoking). Gale et al. also collected information from these participants' records pertaining to their physical wellbeing (i.e., BMI and blood pressure).

Each participant also underwent a cognitive functioning test that measured reaction time (which has been correlated with intelligence) and had their socioeconomic position assessed (via census data, educational attainment, overcrowding for their postal code, and car and house ownership records).

Some of the participants passed away during the course of this study (sad, albeit not necessarily surprising, considering all individuals registered with UK Biobank are over the age of 40). Death certificates were thus obtained from these individuals so as to determine the cause of mortality.

At first glance, Gale et al. found what most of us might expect: Neuroticism, in general, was associated with slightly higher mortality rates. But when her team adjusted for other factors — specifically, self-reported health — they found that the people who scored higher in neuroticism actually lived longer than people who scored lower in this trait (even if such individuals had been diagnosed with a chronic disease or smoked and engaged in similarly unhealthy behaviors).

Intriguingly, explained Gale in a recent press release, "when we explored this further, we found that this protective effect was only present in people who rated their health as fair or poor. We also found that people who scored highly on one aspect of neuroticism related to worry and vulnerability had a reduced risk of death regardless of how they rated their health."

Source: Pixabay

How might the experience of certain negative emotions (namely, worry) protect one's health rather than mar it? As previous research has suggested — and as Gale et al. reason in their paper — "higher neuroticism...might be protective against death if it leads individuals to be vigilant in taking care of their health." As an illustration of this, the more neurotic among us may avail themselves of healthcare services more frequently than those of us who tend not to feel as anxious about the smallest scratch, bump, or fleeting ache or pain. "This propensity to seek medical help in response to worries about health could," Gale et al. reason, "plausibly result in earlier identification of cancer, and greater likelihood of survival."

Gale et al. also pointed towards previous research indicating "that when high neuroticism is accompanied by high conscientiousness, it may have benefits for health, as indicated by lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers, less smoking after the onset of disease, and lower mortality—albeit in women only."

While further research is needed to clarify exactly how and when neuroticism comes in handy, those of us who tend to stew a bit more over our health and other factors may find relief in the science-backed fact that all those negative emotions may, in the long run, add a few more years to our lives.