What Is Neurotic Behavior?

Lots of people feel anxious from time to time. You might get a knot in your stomach before a job interview, stress about money, or fret if your child isn’t home by curfew. It’s a normal part of being human.

But what if your extreme worry doesn’t go away? Negative or obsessive thoughts can take over your mind to the point that it’s hard for you to handle everyday situations. That’s called neurotic behavior. It can -- but not always -- stem from a mental illness.

History of Neurosis

Neurotic means you’re afflicted by neurosis, a word that has been in use since the 1700s to describe mental, emotional, or physical reactions that are drastic and irrational. At its root, a neurotic behavior is an automatic, unconscious effort to manage deep anxiety.

In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association removed the term neurosis from its diagnostic manual as part of a revamp to standardize the criteria for mental illnesses. Today, neurosis is not a stand-alone mental condition. Instead, doctors most often put its symptoms in the same category as anxiety disorder. In other words, what used to be called neurosis now falls under the umbrella of anxiety.

Neurotic Conduct

The line that divides neurotic from normal is the intensity. Neurotic thoughts and behaviors by definition are so extreme that they interfere with your personal, professional, and romantic lives. What’s more, they tend to be your default response to even minor problems.

Common behavior: You worry about finishing a big project at work on time.

Neurotic behavior: You fixate on the deadline and moan, “I’ll never get this done!” even though it’s not due for months and you have little other work to do.

Common behavior: You like to get to the airport 2 hours before every flight.

Neurotic behavior: You insist on arriving 4 hours early, and then you ask the gate agent every 10 minutes if the departure is on time.

Common behavior: Your former spouse was unfaithful, and you’re wary about new relationships.

Neurotic behavior: You constantly ask your new partner if they’re cheating on you, and then blame yourself for driving them away.

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Personality vs. Mental Illness

Sometimes neurotic behaviors arise because you literally have a neurotic personality. Also called neuroticism, it’s a personality type, not a diagnosable medical problem. Experts call it one of the “Big Five” personality traits (the others are extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience), a set of common characteristics that are found around the world most often.

A neurotic personality has little natural buffer against stress. You see everyday situations as far worse than they really are, and then blame yourself for your extreme pessimism and negativity. You might constantly feel:

  • Irritated
  • Angry
  • Sad
  • Guilty
  • Worried
  • Hostile
  • Self-consciousness
  • Vulnerable

Neurotic behaviors also can stem from mental health problems. A neurotic personality may make you more prone to get what researchers call “internalizing disorders,” such as:

Neurotic personality or neurotic behaviors do not include delusions or hallucinations, which are symptoms of psychotic disorders where you lose touch with reality. Instead, you obsess over your own negative emotions and failures, real or imagined.

Researchers believe there’s a link between neurotic personality and your genes, which may pave the way for new treatments for anxiety or depression.

Costs and Benefits

People with neurotic personalities are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol and other drugs, have eating disorders, lack social support, and divorce.

At the same time, a healthy dose of neurotic tendencies can be useful. Someone with a balanced personality may channel anxiety about a deadline at work to frame it as a chance to earn a promotion or to team up with co-workers. Or worries about your health could motivate you to eat well and to exercise.

Treatment

If you manage your anxiety and stress, it may help curb your neurotic behaviors. Self-treatment may work if your anxiety is mild and brief. Experts recommend that you:

Exercise every day. Thirty minutes is best, but even a 15-minute walk can help you feel better.

Talk to someone. Tell family and friends what’s fueling your anxiety, and let them know how they can help.

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Get enough sleep. A lack of sleep can worsen anxiety and stress. Aim for 8 hours of shut-eye every night.

Cut back on alcohol and caffeine. They can also make anxiety worse. Drink water instead.

Eat well-balanced meals. Healthy meals and snacks boost your energy. Be sure to eat every meal: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Reframe your thoughts. It’s not always easy, but try to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Ask yourself: Is what I’m worried about really as bad as I think?

Write it down. Track what triggers your anxiety, and then look for patterns. Learn better ways to handle it next time.

If these measures don’t help, or if you feel that anxiety is hampering your life, talk to your doctor.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on June 11, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD, professor, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Emory University School of Medicine.

Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology: “Neuroticism and low self-esteem as risk factors for psychosis.”

DSM-III: the 3rd edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association.

Journal of Family Psychology: “Neuroticism and marital satisfaction: the mediating role played by the sexual relationship.”

The American Psychologist: “Public Health Significance of Neuroticism.”

Royal Society Open Science (UK): “Chimpanzee intellect: personality, performance and motivation with touchscreen tasks.”

Journal of Personality: “Neuroticism and Attitudes Toward Action in 19 Countries.”

National Institute of Mental Health: “Anxiety Disorders.”

American Psychological Association Dictionary: “Neurosis.”

Oxford Bibliographies: “Five-Factor Model of Personality.”

University of Rochester Medical Center: “Being Neurotic, Conscientious, a Good Combo for Health.”

MedlinePlus: “Generalized anxiety disorder -- self-care.”

Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress.”

Molecular Psychiatry: “Genome-wide analysis of over 106 000 individuals identifies 9 neuroticism-associated loci.”

Nature Genetics: “Meta-analysis of genome-wide association studies for neuroticism in 449,484 individuals identifies novel genetic loci and pathways.”

Merriam-Webster: “Neurosis.”

Behavioral Sciences (Switzerland): “The Evolution of the Classification of Psychiatric Disorders.”

UpToDate: “Panic disorder in adults: Epidemiology, pathogenesis, clinical manifestations, course, assessment, and diagnosis.”

Assessment: “What Lies Beyond Neuroticism? An Examination of the Unique Contributions of Social-Cognitive Vulnerabilities to Internalizing Disorders.”

Behavior Therapy: “Evaluation of the Unique and Specific Contributions of Dimensions of the Triple Vulnerability Model to the Prediction of DSM-IV Anxiety and Mood Disorder Constructs.”

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