How to (Kind of) Master Your Neuroticism

By
Photo: kostman/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In psychology, the most popular and rigorously tested account of personality is the so-called Big 5 model of personality traits. Four of them sound pretty nice to have: conscientiousness, which makes you on time for things; agreeableness, which makes you nice; extraversion, which makes you social; and openness to experience, which makes you adventurous in thought and deed. Then there’s neuroticism, which not only disposes you to anxiety and other negative emotions, but to spending lots of time ruminating about all those feelings.

Digging into the studies, you find that neuroticism sounds less like a personality trait and more like a curse. People who score highly on it tend to be lousy spouses, deal worse with uncertainty, are more distracted at work, prefer inaction to action, and have a higher likelihood of panic attacks and anxiety or depression disorders. They’re also more likely to get addicted to cigarettes, booze, or heroin; they also die sooner. But in talking with researchers, it’s clear that the trait itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s a matter of how you respond to it.

Neuroticism, like all personality traits, starts to show up in early childhood. Temperament researchers, who study such things, consider the neuroticism to be an expression of “negative emotionality,” or being disposed to more negative emotions than other people. (Neurotic babies will shrink from novel situations or people, exhibiting early forms of withdrawal, or cry when faced with things that frustrate them, an early sign of volatility.)

Rebecca Shiner, a Colgate University psychologist and co-author of the Handbook of Temperament, tells Science of Us that behaviors like these are expressions of a biological system attuned to perceiving threats. Everybody “has” negative emotionality, but to varying degrees: Some people will get freaked out by even the smallest inconvenience, while others couldn’t care less about a would-be crisis. The leading research indicates that these feelings lead neurotic people to either internalize, withdrawing into their insecurities and ruminations, or externalize, getting angry, irritable, or impulsive. But this disposition itself isn’t a problem to be solved; the issues come when people don’t have the skills to handle their unwieldy interior energies.

More specifically, people who get into trouble with their negative emotionality typically don’t like to have difficult emotions, like anger or anxiety; thus, they do everything they can to suppress them, said David Barlow, the founder and director emeritus of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University and author of Anxiety and Its Disorders. But that doesn’t work, especially since, he says, they are super sensitive to the physical sensations that are a part of their problems. “People with panic disorder are so sensitive to expressions of fear, like breathing quickly and perspiration, that those sensations come to trigger a panic attack,” he says.

Attempt to numb, avoid, or suppress those emotional responses, and you risk developing disordered behaviors, which, essentially, “are people’s ill-fated attempts to feel better,” Shiner says. “OCD is an attempt to cope with an obsessive thought. Substance abuse involves trying to deal with the discomfort of feeling bad. You can think of a lot of disorders as a lot of ways of coping with feeling bad.” The right way to handle your own sensitivity to threats, then, would be to change the way you relate to them.

Reframe “negative” to “difficult.”

To that end, it might be helpful to revise the language from “negative emotions,” which makes them sound like something you need to get rid of, like a negative balance in a checking account. Ethan Nichtern, senior teacher in Shambhala Buddhism and author of The Road Home, says that he likes the way that the Dalai Lama conceptualizes it: Rather than calling sadness or anger a negative emotion, call it what it rightly is — a difficult emotion. “It points to there being an emotion there, but doesn’t create a bias toward or away from the experience,” he says.

Seek adventure.

Psychotherapist Louis Cozolino, author of Why Therapy Works, says that one of the biggest dangers about being neurotic is that if you’re unwilling to experience difficult emotions, then you’re going to preclude yourself from great swathes of life, whether that’s relationships or fitness or career. (For example, Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard has said that he doesn’t take jump shots because he wants “to be perfect,” and missing — something that even LeBron James does half the time — would be proof of being otherwise.) “Probably the best thing to do is develop a discipline of risk-taking, forcing yourself to do things you wouldn’t do and make that a regular part of your life,” Cozolino says, observing that the point isn’t to cure neuroticism but to counterbalance it. “The opposite of anxiety is exploration.”

Get more granular.

Internally, having a fine-grained understanding of your emotional states can be liberating. Since the 1990s, Northeastern University psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has developed the concept of “emotional granularity.” Her and others’ experiments indicate that when people can describe their emotional states with complexity — not just “feeling bad” about what’s going on with the water in Flint, Michigan, but experiencing “righteous indignation” — they experience all sorts benefits, like less alcoholism or aggression and more “emotion regulation,” or being able to keep your psychological footing when things get bumpy. Greater granularity allows you to live more “precisely,” she wrote in the New York Times earlier this year, since being able to clearly behold an emotion suggests an action in kind. If you’re righteously indignant about Flint, she argues, you’ll respond by looking up ways to protect your family from lead poisoning or get the ear of your congressperson.

Put it into words.

The actual act of putting those states into words grants relief. In a line of research developed by University of Texas psychologist James Pennebaker, expressively writing for 20 minutes a day for three days has shown to help people become less depressed, less anxious, and take fewer visits to the doctor. The effects are almost magical: In one compelling experiment, Pennebaker did the writing exercises with a group of software engineers who had just been laid off, and he found that they were three times more likely to find new gigs than their peers who hadn’t expressed themselves in such a way.

Hold your thoughts with a looser grip.

Shiner likes the cognitive-behavioral-therapy technique that encourages people to think of their thoughts more objectively, like, Is the feeling I have about this thing actually true? If my colleague doesn’t hold the elevator for me, does that really mean that he’s an asshole? Put another way: Don’t believe everything you think.

Dispositional mindfulness — or the quality of generally being aware of what you’re thinking and feeling — has been shown to lessen the depressive effects of neuroticism in British and American populations; mindfulness meditation practice can help people, too. Like Mark Epstein observes in The Trauma of Everyday Life, one of the things that meditation trains you to do is to regard your interior states like an alert, present mother cares for an infant: You nonjudgmentally attend to your own emotions, even if they don’t make you comfortable.

Befriend yourself.

Put into proper Buddhist terminology, you’d call this self-compassion. Nichtern, the Buddhist teacher, says that it’s kind of like bringing a friend with you’re getting a root canal: You might have anxiety about the operation, so you bring a bud. “The friend is offering you the warmth and allows you to not avoid the situation,” he says. “The combination of attention with warmth normalizes the experience.” With self-compassion, then, you’re holding your own hand, befriending the emotion, make empathy intrapersonal. “It’s pointing friendship inward,” he says. In a formal, say 20-minute, practice, it would go like this: Spend five or seven minutes in body-based mindfulness, which sets the table and gets you out of your head, then summon an emotion that you’re having difficulty with — heartache, anxiety about work, regret about the thing you did last weekend — and wish yourself well. In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, the four slogans used for this kind of contemplation are May I be happy, May I be safe, May I be at ease, May I be healthy. “You can bring to mind the difficult emotion, then say ‘May I live at ease — may I incorporate this emotion into my experience and have ease,’” Nichtern says.

*This post has been corrected to show that Lou Cozolino is not a psychoanalyst; he is a psychotherapist.

All of this self-focus may sound a little like narcissism or self-absorption; it’s not. What’s crucial to realize, Nichtern says, is that this is the farthest thing away from narcissism; rather than self-obsession, it’s self-awareness. As evidenced by the fact that the most self-aware people are the ones that move into the center of the car when the subway doors open, being self-aware is super relational. This is because, Nichtern says, once you start examining yourself, you realize how interdependent you are — how much your family, friends, and colleagues shape your life. The contemplation can also be done on the spot, he says, like if you’re feeling an unwieldy emotion or awaiting election results. Just breathe three times, then wish yourself one of the phrases: May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I be at ease.