Do you ever feel like you find it harder to bounce back from misfortune than other people? As if, somehow, your friends and family are more equipped to handle stressful situations than you?

If so, you may want to try the Big Five Personality test and discover your Neuroticism score.

Neuroticism refers to a person's tendency towards responding to situations with distressing emotions like anxiety, depression, guilt and shame. 

Whilst we all feel these emotions occasionally, people with high Neuroticism scores tend to experience them more readily and regularly. They likely will struggle with low self-esteem, mood swings and feel general discomfort during everyday challenges. 

Living through a lens of high Neuroticism is undoubtedly difficult and distressing, but the good news is you can lower your score. 

We sat down with mental health practitioner and cognitive behavioral psychotherapist, Benji McMahon, to find out how. 

Hi Benji! We're curious: what differentiates Neuroticism from normal stress? Can't everyone, in a way, be considered a little bit neurotic? 

Well, as humans, we all go through life carrying a proverbial 'stress bucket'. When we experience stressful or unpleasant experiences, we add more water to these buckets. 

As they fill up, we feel more anxious, irritable and lower in our mood. Then, once these buckets spill over, we quickly become overwhelmed by our thoughts and emotions. In this circumstance, we can find it particularly hard to control our actions and begin to act on impulse.

Whilst everyone carries a stress bucket, people who experience high levels of Neuroticism tend to have a smaller bucket than average, and this adversely affects the person's everyday life. They're likely to experience distressing emotions quickly and can sometimes find themselves overwhelmed in response to everyday stresses

Additionally, they might struggle to empty their stress buckets in the way that those with lower Neuroticism might be able to prior to it overflowing, again resulting in increased emotional instability and distress.

For people who identify with the Neurotic personality trait, it's natural to wonder why their inner world feels so turbulent. What are the different schools of thought on this topic? 

Evolutionary psychologists suggest Neuroticism to be a trait that was 'selected for' in primordial times. During this era, certain neurotic characteristics such as hyper-vigilance would have enabled our survival, for example, when keeping safe from predators or avoiding potentially dangerous weather conditions. 

But today, these traits serve as an outdated threat detection system, sounding the alarm in a disproportionate fashion to modern-day stressors that may not pose the same level of danger, in comparison to those of primordial times.

Then there's the nature/nurture route. Scientists have found that some people have a genetic susceptibility to Neuroticism. For example, some individuals may express certain genetic variants that results in an over activity of the amygdala and the networks it sits within, resulting in heightened states of arousal and anxiety for those individuals. 

The expression of certain genetic variants can also result in an under activity of the neural circuitry that inhibits or 'switches off' the pathways in the brain that underpin our experience of anxiety, arousal and distress. So we can see there's no one clear pathway between our genes and our experience of anxiety, with many genetic variants potentially at play here.

And there are also many arguments in favor of the nurture route too?

Yes, one example here being neglect; developmental psychology tells us that when we experience distress in early years, and our parents respond accordingly by meeting our needs in whichever way is desired at the time, we undergo a process known as 'co-regulation', in which our distress is reduced, and our emotions become regulated as a result of our parents' intervention. 

Perhaps paradoxically, those who experience frequent co-regulation as a child are far more able to regulate their emotions independently in later life, and vice versa – paving the way for a predisposition to emotional instability in those who lacked the experience of co-regulation.

However, this isn't to say that adverse experiences in early life are the only kind that can have this effect on neurotic traits. Traumatic events at any age have the potential to influence us in this way, particularly as a result of the way in which they shape our beliefs about ourselves, the world, and other people in unhelpful ways.

For example, such an event could result in us feeling that the world is less safe and/or we are less able to protect ourselves from the dangers of the result, resulting in an increase in hyper-vigilance, emotional instability and anxiety.

It's interesting you say that, as Truity research found that Neuroticism worsened across the population during the pandemic. Just as scores can go up, can they also go down?

Definitely. One study I recently came across found that reducing the trait Neuroticism has the same effect on happiness ratings as an increase in salary to $300,000. This finding shows that you really can't put a price on your mental health! 

It's quite likely that people experiencing Neuroticism spend a lot of time in their heads: ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, and engaging in unhelpful behaviors that distract from the present moment. This finding exemplifies the cost of that.

It also shows us, more encouragingly, that by breaking free from the grip of neurotic thoughts and emotions, we can open the door to a far more meaningful and fulfilling life. 

And how can individuals who identify with neurotic tendencies better manage these thoughts and emotions? 

Part of the intervention within CBT is becoming aware of our emotional and cognitive experience, rather than being lost or led by our thoughts. For example, rather than finding ourselves lost in or identified with the thought, "I'm a failure," we evolve to notice: "I am experiencing the thought that I am a failure." 

When we take the time to observe our thoughts in this way, we can become aware of the fact that these thoughts are seemingly broadcasted into our minds in an automatic fashion; we do not inherently 'choose' to have these thoughts.

However, this does not mean that we have to live at the mercy of our cognitive experiences, and using CBT techniques we can experiment with and challenge these thoughts accordingly. As well as this, we can identify certain 'biases' within our thinking that help us to separate thought from fact, and develop alternative counter thoughts that are more in keeping with what we know to be true. 

Tuning into our thoughts, and managing them accordingly in this fashion, can serve to alleviate any unhelpful emotions that may be attached to our previous way of thinking, such as anxiety or sadness.

Further, using the CBT model, we can identify unhelpful relationships between what we think and the behaviors we engage in, and with this awareness make a conscious effort to engage in behaviors or activities that are more conducive to our wellbeing and reduce engagement in patterns of activity that may serve to maintain our emotional difficulties in the long-term.

Lastly, what would your parting words of wisdom be to people who identify with high Neuroticism scores?

I want people to know that change is possible. I don't believe that anyone is unable to overcome psychological suffering in spite of how challenging a process it may seem.

Accessing therapy can really enable a better understanding of what it is that is creating and maintaining mental health difficulties, and offer some great techniques to overcome these. But taking steps to just become more aware of your thoughts, their automatic nature, their lack of truth in many circumstances, and their effect on our actions, is a great starting point. 

There are many online self-help tools based on CBT and mindfulness that will really help in assisting with these discoveries, and I encourage anyone who wants to take steps to improve their wellbeing to access these.

Hannah Pisani
Hannah Pisani is a freelance writer based in London, England. A type 9 INFP, she is passionate about harnessing the power of personality theory to better understand herself and the people around her - and wants to help others do the same. When she's not writing articles, you'll find her composing songs at the piano, advocating for people with learning difficulties, or at the pub with friends and a bottle (or two) of rose.