Irritable. Moody. Anxious. Tense. Neurotic types get a bad rap, and it’s no surprise considering the characteristics most commonly associated with the personality trait.
Neuroticism is considered one of the “Big 5” personality traits, along with extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience. According to a 2009 article in the journal American Psychologist, neuroticism refers to “tendencies to respond with negative emotions to threat, frustration, or loss.” In other words? Neurotics don’t exactly roll with the punches. And that can affect more than attitude and mood. In studies, neuroticism has been associated with negative health outcomes, including increased risk of mental conditions and physical health problems, as well as decreased occupational and marital satisfaction.
“Indeed, it predicts shorter, less happy, less healthy, and less successful lives to a meaningful extent,” the American Psychologist article reads.
But it’s not all doom and gloom if you are a neurotic type. Research shows that some people are actually healthy neurotics, meaning they have high levels of both neuroticism and conscientiousness. (Conscientious people are known to be organized, good planners and thorough. They even live longer.)
So what sets these “healthy neurotics” apart? Read on to find out.
They harness the anxiety that is so fundamental in neuroticism, and use it in a positive way.
Nicholas A. Turiano Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, explains that people who are neurotic tend to have more anxiety, emotional reactivity and a negative affect. Anxiety and emotional reactivity in particular are not only linked with increased stress hormones and blood pressure, but also with negative health behaviors, such as self-medication.
“But those neurotic individuals that also endorse high conscientiousness don’t seem to resort to these behaviors,” Turiano tells HuffPost. “We think the high conscientiousness gives the person the resources to refrain from engaging in such detrimental health behaviors and use that anxiety to improve health.” For instance, a healthy neurotic will still experience worry, but will channel that worry into positive behaviors, such as going to the gym or eating healthier.
“The neurotic who is low on conscientiousness and doesn’t have the appropriate self control resources isn’t likely to take this path and instead they ruminate on their anxieties and worries in life and engage in more detrimental behaviors,” Turiano says. “Those high in conscientiousness may have anxiety but it is not making the person freeze while they ruminate on their life problems. They act on their anxiety and that is what motivates them to address what they have anxiety about.”
Being conscientious and neurotic could actually be good for health.
Turiano was the lead researcher of a recent study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, showing that people high in both of these personality traits actually have low levels of interleukin-6, an immune protein that’s known to be a biomarker for inflammation.
Healthy neurotic people don’t just engage in healthier behaviors, but they also “have fewer chronic health conditions, they have healthier body weights, and they have lower levels of inflammation,” Turiano says. Research is also increasingly showing that these people have better stress responses, and don’t overreact to stress (which leads to increased stress hormone levels and heart rate).
“Somehow, these conscientious individuals dampen their own stress responses,” he says. “Finding out if this indeed the case and how they do it will be an important area of future inquiry.”
They also use their conscientiousness and neuroticism to be more successful at work.
Healthy neurotic people don’t just have better physical health, they may also experience benefits in other areas of their lives, Turiano notes. Stress permeates all professions, whether it be the myriad responsibilities of a CEO, or the pressure to obtain grant funding for professors or researchers. But it’s how you deal with that stress that can make you successful or not.
“The healthy neurotic individuals somehow find a way to channel that anxiety they have to motivate them to do good work,” Turiano says.
For journalists for instance, instead of panicking about an upcoming deadline, they will use that anxiety to work harder to get the story done. Meanwhile, a doctor might use that anxiety to better prepare for surgery and be more meticulous while in the OR. “A little stress and anxiety in life can be a good thing to motivate people, especially if you have the resources to channel that anxiety in protective and productive avenues,” he adds. “And high levels of conscientiousness seem to be that protective resource.”
It is possible to boost your conscientiousness. (The big question is how.)
While research is still emerging as to how to increase conscientiousness among neurotic people in particular, there are strategies that exist to increase conscientiousness on a general level. Most people become more conscientious as they get older and mature, and experience life events such as marriage, childbirth, and the like. But not all people experience these increases in conscientiousness, and it’s these people who would potentially need to utilize strategies to increase the trait.
The first step, Turiano says, is to get them to realize that they aren’t harnessing their anxiety and stress in a healthy way.
“For the person who has high anxiety, getting them on a routine may help with their behaviors,” he says. “For example, they plan their meals for the entire week and prepare as much as possible before their work week starts. This way, during the week when they know the stress will be very high, they have already done the planning so they aren’t just eating fast food all week when they are stressed.”