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What Does it Mean to Be Neurotic?

Faiq Shaikh, M.D.
What Does it Mean to Be Neurotic?

Being called "neurotic" is an insult in today's culture. Many people with their own personal eccentricities are called neurotic merely because they're a little different, and this is seen not as a condition but as an irritating personality trait. It is even used as a slur for experiencing emotion and nervousness even when that nervousness is justified.

The way that the term "neurotic" is used today represents a blatant misunderstanding of what really goes on in neuroticism. For many people, being neurotic simply means you're suffering from anxiety.

The Emotions of Neuroticism

Neuroticism has a formal definition, but it is informally assessed. Someone that is "emotional" to one person may be entirely justified to another. Often it has to do with how people interact, why, and more.

The key thing to understand is that being neurotic is, in many ways, just its own type of anxiety. It's defined as people that show an above average preference for a variety of negative emotions, such as:

Neuroticism is considered a "mild psychological issue" - one that many people have without even knowing it. A neurotic person is someone that calls and texts immediately after sending an email to make sure you get it or expresses an emotional (rather than an anger-induced) jealousy when people look at their relationship partner. They're someone that feels guilt when they do not give a homeless person their spare change. They're someone that shows signs of hypochondriasis.

It's easy to see how this would be difficult to diagnose. Neuroticism is, in many ways, simply a way to show and experience emotion. Someone that experiences nervousness that is "a little worse than normal" in a given situation, or someone that is "a bit more cautious" before stepping onto a roller coaster may be a neurotic person, or it may just be someone that is a bit more nervous or anxious in that specific situation. It's very difficult to tell.

Not everyone that is jealous, anxious, or guilt-stricken is going to be neurotic, and many people that are neurotic do not show signs of anxiety. But there is some evidence that those with a neurotic personality type do seem to experience more anxiety than those without anxiety.

Anxiety or Neuroticism?

It is because of the similarities between neuroticism and anxiety, and the difficulty in distinguishing between what's "normal" and what's not, that some people that call themselves "neurotic" are suffering from genuine anxiety.

Determining whether you are neurotic, have an anxiety disorder, or have absolutely nothing at all is largely dependent on how the anxiousness manifests:

Perhaps most importantly, do you consider it to be a problem? Because if you feel that your anxiety is bad enough or frequent enough to be a problem, then the likelihood it is neuroticism or nothing at all is much lower.

Finally, there are those that argue that neurotic people can also have an anxiety disorder. The argument is that neuroticism is a personality quirk, while anxiety is the condition. People that show signs of neuroticism act in ways that are out of the norm for the emotions of the event and those same people may then develop anxiety disorders because of their personality.

Cause of Neuroticism Anxiety

Being neurotic is more of a personality trait, and those that are neurotic have very slightly different brains than those that are not. The difference isn't remarkable, but it's enough that there is certainly a difference between those that are neurotic and those that are not neurotic. It's not a condition that is imaginary.

But why those that have neurotic tendencies tend to develop anxiety disorders is less clear. There are two likely reasons:

Many studies have shown that those with neurotic tendencies exhibit far more depression and anxiety after major life change, and seem to have a harder time dealing with stressful events. Studies have also shown that those that score high on neurotic tendencies often exhibit significant stress when faced with uncertainty.

Neuroticism Anxiety - A Problem?

This entire discussion is all based on the idea that neuroticism is a bad thing. But interestingly, neuroticism may have had an evolutionary benefit. Those that show neurotic tendencies seem to be doing anything they can to try to avoid negative consequences and events, and this causes them to both be more cautious in life while simultaneously being far more productive, as they show a significant drive to be successful and avoid negative issues.

In other words, when early man was struggling to escape predators and survive, those that were neurotic likely did a better job staying safe. They were likely much more cautious and careful in new situations, and that cautiousness may have helped them survive.

A neurotic person that has a good social life, no severe anxiety, and can function without any issue is one that doesn't require any treatment (and may not be neurotic at all - just quirky).

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