Obsessive thoughts and negative thought patterns are symptoms of a range of mental health conditions, but they can also indicate neurotic behaviour. In this article, we’re going to look more at neurotic behaviour, how it can impact your life, and how you can deal with it.
What is neurotic behaviour?
‘Neurotic’ is a term colloquially used to describe someone who is uptight, anxious about the tiniest of slights, emotionally unstable, quick to anger, and frequently obsessive about small things. If you regularly sweat the small stuff and stay awake at night worrying and overthinking, then you may even think of yourself as neurotic. But what does being neurotic actually mean?
In the dictionary, neurosis is defined as: “A mental illness, resulting in high levels of anxiety, unreasonable fears and behaviour and, often, a need to repeat actions for no reason” – but neurosis is sometimes muddled up with neuroticism (a spectrum of psychological disorders). It’s important to be aware that these two things are different; a personality assessment can determine whether or not you’re neurotic.
Neurosis and the Big 5
So, in summary, neuroticism is not a mental health condition or mental illness – it’s a term that is used to describe a set of behaviours that can indeed be distressing and overwhelming emotionally, but they don’t tend to interfere with everyday functioning. Neurotic people may well have other mental disorders or mood disorders, such as depression or anxiety (including panic attacks), which can be exacerbated by their neurotic tendencies and behaviours, but more than anything, neuroticism is one of the ‘Big 5’ personality traits.
The Big 5 personality traits are agreed upon terms by the majority of psychologists that refer to primary personality traits everyone has. They include extroversion (socially outgoing or solitary and reserved), agreeableness (friendly or critical), openness (curious or cautious), conscientiousness (organised or disorganised), and neuroticism (emotionally sensitive or resilient). It’s widely believed most peoples’ personalities are built upon a mixture of these big five personality traits. Neurotic people tend to experience negative emotions more and generally experience emotional instability. They are more likely to develop depressive or anxiety disorders as a result.
Roots of neurosis
There will be a reason in childhood why someone develops neurosis. That reason will relate to the child’s needs not being completely met in the way he or she needs them to be. Perhaps because the parents are absorbed in their own world, or because they are too critical, inconsistent, overindulgent – or just aren’t attuned to the child’s needs, and thoughts and fears. The child doesn’t feel heard, and doesn’t feel able to express his or her true feelings. The child grows up without an internalised sense of safety and belonging. Instead, a growing sense of anxiety and insecurity develops. The child can’t relate spontaneously to others, and so creates his or her own coping strategies to soothe that anxiety. These strategies, or defences, can become quite rigid over time. The world can seem a scary place to someone who’s neurotic, and those strategies help the person survive in the world.
Are you neurotic? Understanding neurotic behaviours
Neurotic behaviour is when you are in a negative state of mind and experience frequent feelings of anxiety. Neuroticism is a personality trait that refers to how you deal with certain situations and stress. Two people might be in the same situation, but the neurotic person might find the negativity in the situation and react to stress with strong feelings of irritability, anxiety, and fear. Essentially, there are lots of ways neuroticism can present itself, with many of the behaviours making everyday life difficult. Here are some of the most common examples of neurotic personality traits.
Neurotic people tend to react negatively to situations and can make a mountain out of a molehill so to speak. Crabby behaviour and easy irritation over minor issues can be a sign of neuroticism. If you find that you anger easily over very minute things, you might be neurotic. High levels of stress can lead to physical symptoms such as high blood pressure and sleep disturbances, impacting on your overall health.
Aligning with easy irritation is road rage. Everyone makes mistakes and no one is a perfect driver. Some mistakes can be catastrophic, but most aren’t and are easily corrected. If you have road rage and find yourself yelling, beeping, and getting aggressive when someone is in the wrong lane or cuts you up, this could be a sign of neuroticism.
Anger isn’t the only negative emotion neurotic people feel. Lots of neurotic people are highly anxious about lots of things, including their health. If you’re worried that you might be ill when you’re not, or you start to overthink the smallest of symptoms, like a rash or a headache, this could be a neurotic symptom.
Minor things happen all the time, such as your toast burning or spilling your drink. Some people are able to let these things go, but neurotic people may become consumed with them and find that their day is ruined by the smallest inconvenience that causes excessive amounts of distress.
Guilt is another negative emotion that neurotic people often experience, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. If you find that you feel guilty when something isn’t your fault, or that you feel overwhelmingly guilty over a minor issue and apologise over and over even though it’s not a big deal, this is a sign of neurotic behaviour.
We all overthink from time to time, but neurotic people may find themselves obsessively thinking about something that happened or an outcome. This in itself is unpleasant, but it can contribute to things like depression and is a sign of anxiety, too.
Some neurotic people are argumentative by nature, making it difficult to make friends and maintain workplace relationships in a healthy way. This can lead to loneliness and other depressive disorders if not corrected.
A neutral event with no negative consequences can lead neurotic people to find a negative spin or find negative outcomes. A good example is if you are expecting a package, you hear the postman knock at the door but you don’t get there in time, and they leave the package on the doorstep. Whilst you receive your delivery with no issues and you know the postman knocked, if you’re neurotic, you’ll find a way to be negative and take issue with the situation.
There are lots of other neurotic behaviours, such as being extremely envious and jealous of others, holding yourself to an exceptionally high standard and engaging in perfectionism, low self-esteem, and feeling very sad over minor setbacks.
Advantages of neuroticism
Whilst there are a number of issues neurotic people face, there are some advantages to this personality variation. Neurotic people tend to be very self-aware and in-tune with their emotions (more emotional depth). You’re more likely to be organised and conscientious, and have a good sense of reality. Neurotic people are also able to facilitate empathy well, being very supportive of other people, having high levels of compassion, and an inclination to soothe and help those around them. Neuroticism isn’t inherently bad; the individual differences can be advantageous, but the anxious and negative emotions often felt can be debilitating if not dealt with properly on a day to day basis.
Coping with neuroticism
There are lots of ways neurotic symptoms can be managed; some through self-help, and others with the support of a professional. Here are some of the ways neurotic traits can be managed.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
CBT is a highly effective talking therapy that works for a lot of different mental health disorders and personality issues. People with neurotic personalities are often cynical and negative and can exhibit unhelpful thought patterns that lead to anxiety or depression. CBT redefines the way you look at a situation and how you think; seeking to disturb negative and unhelpful thought patterns and equip you with the tools to turn negative reactions into positive ones.
If you’re neurotic and have anxious tendencies, medication can help to quell some of those feelings, such as overthinking and panicking over minor issues.
Dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT)
DBT is based on CBT but focuses solely on people who experience strong, intense emotions, something people with neuroticism tend to have. It aims to help you understand your emotions and accept them, as well as finding effective coping mechanisms to help you manage them.
Mindfulness is a self-help technique that aims to make you more aware of your surroundings, gain more control over how you react to situations, be more kind about yourself, and deal with negative feelings. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it can help with anxiety and dwelling on certain situations.
Professional help for neurotic behaviours
Renowned psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams (author of Psychoanalytic Diagnosis) says that neurotic people “tend to seek therapy because of problems not in essential security or sense of agency, but because they keep running into conflicts between what they want and obstacles to attaining it that they suspect are of their own making”. In other words, neurotic people keep making problems for themselves and don’t quite have the tools to untangle themselves from those problems. They’re functioning well, but life isn’t as smooth or as joyful as they’d like it to be.
For a neurotic person coming into therapy – which is usually long-term and open-ended – the work may be to look at the defences that have kept them going all these years, and starting to unpick the defences that aren’t working quite so well for them. They may also work on the aspects of self that keep holding them back, becoming less buttoned up, getting in touch with their playful, creative side, and gradually connecting with their true self.
If you think you might have a neurotic personality type and want to try and change the way you think with the help of a professional therapist, The Awareness Centre can help. We offer a neutral, caring environment that is judgement free in which you can express your concerns and learn coping strategies to address them. We have decades of experience handling negative emotions and a range of mental illnesses.
To find out more about how we might be able to help you with neuroticism or any other mental health issues, please get in touch with a member of our team today.