The word neurotic is often used incorrectly to describe someone who is paranoid, worried, or frightened, but neuroticism is not a mental illness or psychological disorder. In truth, being neurotic is a personality trait — a pattern of feelings, thoughts, and actions that is longstanding and stabilizes in adulthood. It is more prominent in some people than others.
All personality traits exist on a spectrum, and everyone falls somewhere on that spectrum. Neuroticism is one of the five main personality traits, along with experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness. Someone who is neurotic tends to have more negative emotions than positive. Emotional stability is the opposite of neuroticism.
The term "neurotic" comes from the old idea of neurosis as a mental illness. Where a person falls on the spectrum of neuroticism depends on how frequently they tend toward negative emotions. To assess how neurotic a person is, psychologists have them answer questions about how often they worry about things, how quickly they get irritated, and how frequently they have mood swings.
There are two types of neurotic emotions: over-regulated and under-regulated. Some emotions are suppressed, while others are hypersensitive and easily triggered. While some neurotic people need help reeling in emotions, others wall off their feelings and are emotionally distant. This is sometimes called an affect phobia, as the person is afraid of outwardly showing emotions.
In cases where neuroticism exists alongside a true personality disorder, people on the neurotic end of the spectrum tend to use manipulation tactics. The most common are sulking, begging, coercion, seduction, ignoring, threatening, lying, or threatening to end a relationship. Research shows that neurotics who are in therapy tend to use manipulation more in everyday life than they do when in treatment.
Though being neurotic is not a mental disorder, it is correlated with many conditions. One study strongly associates neuroticism with panic disorders, schizophrenia, mood disorders, depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and drug and alcohol dependence. There is also extensive evidence that neuroticism is related to nicotine, alcohol, and heroin use.
People who score high on the neurotic scale are more likely to have unfounded health complaints, but there are also real links between neuroticism and physical health. Because they are prone to issues like depression and anxiety disorders, neurotic people are also at risk for disrupted immune functioning and cardiac abnormalities.
People with neurotic personalities often feel trapped and as though they cannot change. Fortunately, research suggests that personality traits can change over time. Some studies indicate that a major life event, like having a child or getting married, or developing coping mechanisms, can help someone become less neurotic.
There is no way to cure neuroticism because it is a part of someone's personality, not a disease or illness. That said, psychotherapy can help tone down neurotic tendencies. Therapy focuses on recognizing the tendency to worry and have negative feelings and using mindfulness and coping mechanisms to learn to temper those emotions.
Because everyone's personality exists on the spectrum of neurotic to emotionally stable, everyone is at least a little bit neurotic. Neuroticism in and of itself is not negative. If people on the neurotic end of the scale understand their tendencies and can monitor their stress and anxiety in reaction to stress, they become very self-aware and can better control their emotional responses.
Freud described being neurotic as conflict between the id and ego or the conscious and unconscious. While having a neurotic personality can lead to severe problems with coping, anxiety, and depression, it is important to remember that everyone has some neurotic tendencies, and our reactions are not set in stone.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.