What do Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Elon Musk have in common? They’re all part of the same club — but I don’t mean the “cool famous person” club. All three of them are neurotics.
You might have found you’re part of this club too. But if you’re on this page, then you’re probably not a willing member. Indeed, neuroticism does come with its fair share of challenges: random negative emotions, overblown stress, and a bunch of other not-so-peachy things. (I never said it was a fun club!) So you’d like to stop being neurotic. The good news is, there are definitely things you can do about it.
Below, I have compiled all the relevant studies and tips I could find. By the end, you’ll have the ultimate guide on how to be less neurotic.
- What is neuroticism?
- What are the signs of a neurotic person?
- What causes neuroticism?
- The benefits of neuroticism
- Problems associated with neuroticism
- The “healthy neurotic”
- Can you become less neurotic?
- 17 tips to become less neurotic
- 1. Try therapy
- 2. Practice meditation
- 3. Practice mindfulness
- 4. Practice self-reflection and self-acceptance
- 5. Don’t overanalyze or catastrophize
- 6. Take care of your health
- 7. Change your outlook on anxiety
- 8. Let go of trying to control everything
- 9. Boost your conscientiousness and self-discipline
- 10. Question your cognitive distortions
- 11. Don’t try to find meaning in everything
- 12. Strengthen your relationships
- 13. Embrace the upside of neuroticism
- 14. Accept your emotions
- 15. Use the “opposite to emotion/action” technique
- 16. Learn to hide negative emotions
- 17. Stop, look, listen, smell.
- Wrapping up
What is neuroticism?
First things first: what does it mean to be neurotic?
Neuroticism is basically the opposite of emotional stability.
Neuroticism makes you feel negative emotions and stress in a disproportionate way to what is happening. You’ll be more likely to see neutral events as negative. And you might have drastic or irrational reactions to even minor inconveniences. These reactions can be emotional, mental, or physical. If you’re highly neurotic, these may begin to interfere with your life.
What are the signs of a neurotic person?
The word “neurotic” is used very loosely sometimes. If you want to know if you’re neurotic, see how many of these 15 signs you relate to.
- You have an overall pessimistic attitude.
- You frequently have intense negative emotions like worry, anger, guilt, etc.
- You get stressed, worried, or irritated easily and find it hard to calm down.
- You misinterpret trivial events as much worse than they are.
- You overthink and overanalyze things.
- You have trouble leaving things to chance and try to control people around you.
- You ruminate constantly without it leading anywhere (except more anxiety).
- You tend to complain a lot.
- You have poor self-regulation (ability to manage your urges).
- You constantly worry about your behavior and how others see you.
- You’re rather self-conscious and shy and you doubt yourself easily.
- You are moody and have sudden changes in feelings.
- You have a hard time bouncing back after adversity.
- You easily become jealous or envious of what other people have.
- You’re a perfectionist and spend much longer than necessary on tasks.
What causes neuroticism?
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of neuroticism. Researchers believe that both biological and environmental factors are at play.
Here are some possible factors:
- Brain function: Neurotic people tend to have lower oxygen levels in their lateral prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain plays a role in a variety of cognitive processes.
- Childhood trauma: Experiencing trauma when young appears to increase neuroticism. However, trauma later in life doesn’t seem to have this effect.
- Climate: Extreme weather patterns can increase neuroticism. This is possibly due to lower dopamine as a result of climatic stress.
- Gender: Women tend to score higher in neuroticism. Interestingly, the gap seems to be smaller in the online medium. This could be because people worry less about what others think of them online, as they are anonymous.
- Genetics: Neuroticism could be inherited.
- Survival: Some people argue that neuroticism results from evolution. Being hypersensitive to danger or threats could help us avoid them and survive.
Neurotic behaviors can also stem from mental health problems. You might be more prone to get what researchers call “internalizing disorders.”
The benefits of neuroticism
At this point, neuroticism doesn’t seem to have much going for it.
But American psychologist and researcher Richard Zinbarg points out that being neurotic doesn’t make you “bad”. It’s simply a way of operating.
Psychiatrist Grant H. Brenner adds that because neurotic people have more experience with negative emotions, they are deeper and more empathetic.
In fact, both researchers found many great qualities in neurotic people:
- Realistic expectations.
- Greater self-awareness.
- Drive and conscientiousness.
- Lower risk-taking.
- Desire to provide for others.
- Emotional depth.
- Ability to think ahead.
Problems associated with neuroticism
Alas, though we like to look at the bright side, there are indeed problems with high levels of neuroticism. (Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this!)
Most significantly, it’s strongly related to cognitive decline. This is because neurotic people are more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, or take less action to stay healthy.
Other problems range from health to relationships and nearly everything in between. For many of these issues, neuroticism can create an evil loop. Being neurotic compounds the problem, which then further reinforces neurotic behaviors.
For example, your negative beliefs about yourself can make it hard to function socially. This confirms your negative beliefs, leading you to think about them more often.
But the good news is you can stop this evil cycle — and also prevent cognitive decline — by recognizing your behaviors. Then take action to prevent the outcomes you don’t want.
The “healthy neurotic”
As I was doing research for this article, I went from intrigued — to slightly worried — to rather dejected. Despite the many benefits associated with neuroticism, the issues seemed maddening. As a self-identified neurotic, I started wishing I could “redo” my personality.
But then I came across something interesting — and hopeful.
There seems to be a “healthy neurotic” type of personality. This is a combination of two things:
- High neuroticism.
- High conscientiousness (being disciplined and organized).
A researcher defined it after seeing some studies that show neurotics are less healthy or die sooner, while others show the opposite. He started to wonder if neuroticism could be something like a double-edged sword. For some people, the anxiety could be very damaging. But others might use it as motivation to improve their health.
Another psychologist found support for this idea. “Healthy neurotics” are more likely to stick to a new exercise regime. In fact, they did even better than those high in conscientiousness but low in neuroticism.
And many studies provide further support, showing that the “healthy neurotic”:
- Is less likely to smoke.
- Recovers autonomy faster after periods of uncertainty.
- Has lower body mass index and reduced levels of inflammation.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of health. If you prioritize it, many other issues dissipate. So if you’re both neurotic and conscientious, put this combination to good use and focus on a healthy lifestyle.
It also means that aside from being less neurotic, you can also work to be more conscientious. Both these things will have positive effects on your life.
Can you become less neurotic?
We’ve looked at the storm, the silver lining, and the soggy aftermath of neuroticism. But you might still have one burning question: can I do anything about it and stop being neurotic?
As it likely has a genetic and biological component, it’s not something you can change completely. For example, you won’t be able to go from being in the 90th percentile to the 10th percentile of neuroticism.
But there is still room for change.
This will likely happen naturally over time. Neuroticism generally declines as you age.
You can also put in active effort. A review of 207 studies found that people became significantly less neurotic after therapy. In fact, in just 3 to 6 months, emotional stability could improve by half as much as it would over an entire lifetime.
The leader of the review concluded:
This really is definitive evidence that the idea that personality doesn’t change is wrong. We’re not saying personality dramatically reorganizes itself. You’re not taking an introvert and making them into an extravert. But this reveals that personality does develop and it can be developed.
17 tips to become less neurotic
Now that we’ve established that you can indeed become less neurotic, the next question is “how?”.
I’ve gathered 17 tips backed by research or experts to help you overcome your neuroticism.
1. Try therapy
As I’ve already mentioned above, therapy is a very effective way to be less neurotic. If you only try one of these 17 tips, I’d recommend this one.
If anxiety and neuroticism are something you struggle with, I wouldn’t put this off. When you doubt you need therapy, you probably do — and everyone I know who has done it for any reason has always said the same. Their only regret was not having started sooner.
If you need more information about the benefits of therapy, here's our article on how therapy can make you happier.
2. Practice meditation
If you can’t talk to a therapist just yet, the next best thing you can try is meditation.
I’ve been doing this myself over the past few weeks, and I’ve already noticed a huge difference. I’m able to catch emotions before they spill into reactions, reassess them, and not follow them.
I’ve personally been using Mindvalley’s 6 Phase Meditation method. It takes you through:
- Positive visualization for the future.
- Positive visualization for your perfect day.
- A feeling of bliss.
The first three phases in particular have been found to be extremely healing.
But you can also try any other kind of meditation that feels best for you. If you need more information, read our article about meditation and how it can benefit you!
3. Practice mindfulness
Another habit that goes hand in hand with meditation is mindfulness.
This might sound like a bad idea for neurotic people. It’s essentially thinking more intensely about your experiences — which in this case is negative thoughts and feelings.
But part of mindfulness is deciding how you want to view the experience you’re having. You look at it with curiosity and acceptance. Instead of fighting the feeling, you ask yourself where it’s coming from. Then you reframe the situation as one you can conquer.
People high in both neuroticism and mindfulness have less mental distress than those high in just mindfulness. Additionally, mindfulness meditation practice can protect you against the negative effects of neuroticism.
4. Practice self-reflection and self-acceptance
A big reason many want to stop being neurotic is feeling controlled by negative emotions. You can loosen the grip they have on you through self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-acceptance.
This lets you dig down to the roots of your emotions. Try to understand what triggers you and what exactly you feel when. Consider also whether your emotional reaction was warranted.
This may feel uncomfortable. We often empathize with others for feeling anxious, but beat ourselves up for the same thing.
Approach your feelings the same way as you would if a dear friend were telling you about them. Remember, you can’t judge yourself for things you can’t control, and that includes your emotions.
If you can be objective in an emotional situation, you’re already less neurotic by half. You automatically become less emotionally reactive.
5. Don’t overanalyze or catastrophize
As a neurotic person, you may feel a lot more stress than there actually is in your life. Situations can seem a lot more stressful than they really are.
It may help to recognize that stress can be a subjective experience. It’s separate from what is actually going on in your life.
Next time you feel anxiety clutching at you, remember that things may not be as bad as they feel. This can stop you from catastrophizing the situation. Let the stress pass until you see things with more clarity.
6. Take care of your health
Neuroticism can be linked with poor health, less exercise, and bad eating habits. Plus, if you’re not feeling well physically, it’s that much harder to handle things emotionally.
This gives you two great reasons to work on your health. One is to mitigate one of the worst potential pitfalls of neuroticism. And two, to improve your ability to handle the emotions that come with it.
The rewards are plenty: emotional regulation, self-esteem, and a better mood. (Not to mention, good health is a reward in and of itself).
Here are the health basics you’ll want to cover to be less neurotic:
- Exercise every day. Higher intensity exercise has a much greater effect on reducing anxiety.
- Get enough sleep — aim for 8 hours. A lack can worsen anxiety and stress.
- Cut back on alcohol and caffeine. These can make anxiety worse.
- Eat well-balanced meals. Having a well-nourished body supports cognitive function and resiliency.
7. Change your outlook on anxiety
Most people don’t consider anxiety to be good. But maybe you should, particularly if you want to stop being neurotic.
Our attitudes to anxiety actually determine how it affects our mental and physical health. If we consider it to be damaging, we take longer to recover and have more long-term consequences from it.
But if we see it as a source of motivation and energy, we perform better and recover more quickly. This kind of positive outlook can even completely buffer the bad effects of anxiety over a year.
8. Let go of trying to control everything
There are few things we can actually control in life. After all, there are 8 billion other people on the planet each exercising free will. Not to mention the forces of nature and everything else in the universe.
We can certainly try to influence others in the way we think is best. But we can’t assume responsibility for everything going on in the world. And it wouldn’t be fair for that to happen anyways.
Letting go of this desire means letting go of unrealistic expectations for yourself. It doesn’t mean you’ve stopped caring — just that you’re being honest with yourself.
9. Boost your conscientiousness and self-discipline
Aside from being less neurotic, you can also work to be more conscientious — and become a “healthy neurotic”.
The key to this is organization and self-discipline. Make note of your anxieties, and act on them.
Most importantly of all, don’t take on an “all or nothing” attitude. There will inevitably be days when you get off track or fall behind. Don’t assume that because you floundered on one step, you have to stop walking altogether.
For example, I now exercise at least 3-4 times per week, for 1-1.5 hours. I’ve had this habit for the past six months. But I’ve been trying to acquire it for the past 6 years. I worked my way to greater discipline by not giving up. Even when I consistently had weeks where I only went to the gym once (or, I admit, not at all).
10. Question your cognitive distortions
Humans are full of biases — including “but I’m not biased!” (The biggest bias of them all).
This is especially the case for neurotic people. Their behavior often results from a faulty perception of reality.
The negativity bias applies in particular: we pay more attention to the negative stuff. This helps ensure our survival. (You can admire the beautiful sunset after you run away from the poisonous snake!) But it can also lead to overreaction: seeing negativity where there is none.
You might overgeneralize: you fail a test and think you’re a failure. Anything bad that happens is proof of your lack of competence.
Or, you might catastrophize: you get rejected in a job interview and tell yourself “I’m never going to find a job!”
It can be hard to break through these illusions. They can cling to our minds like leeches.
The first step is simply becoming aware of them.
Then try to challenge them with questions:
- Is this really true? Is there objective evidence?
- If a friend thought this, what would I say to them?
- Is this thought helpful? Will it help me move forward?
11. Don’t try to find meaning in everything
Humans are the only creatures to look for meaning in everything, from the wacky behavior of our pets to the position of the stars. If you’re neurotic, this mechanism can go into overdrive.
But the truth is, some things happen for no good reason at all.
- Your phone fell and cracked because gravity pulled it from your lap onto the floor.
- You catch a cold the day before your vacation because you inhaled a virus.
- Your boss lays into you because he had a terrible day and your joke struck the wrong nerve.
If you look hard enough, you may discover some useful life lessons in some of these things. Or you may find that they’re just awfully inconvenient or unpleasant. Stuff happens. And sometimes it has nothing to do with you or your personal growth journey.
12. Strengthen your relationships
Relationships are one of the keys to long-term happiness. They are also one of the most likely things to suffer from neuroticism.
So it’s very important to invest in building healthy relationships.
Perhaps you’re aware of a particular issue you need to work on. But if not, you can focus on some common issues that arise from being neurotic.
One of these is a tendency for reduced “prosocial behaviors.” These include helping others, being supportive, and giving (to specific people or charity). Neurotic people tend to do less of them.
Research has found this is because of a lower sense of self-efficacy. This is the belief that you can do well in social situations. It goes along with self-esteem to help you bring out the best in yourself.
If you find yourself low on self-efficacy, you can increase it by:
- Identifying problem areas.
- Setting specific behavioral goals.
- Practicing interpersonal skills.
This will lead to:
- Greater social success.
- Better confidence in yourself.
- The expectation that you can work and play well with others.
A great way to start is doing meaningful volunteer work helping others. Researchers point out it can:
- Help distract you from negative ruminations.
- Foster gratitude.
- Give you a low-stakes opportunity to work on social skills and boost self-efficacy.
13. Embrace the upside of neuroticism
To be fair, this last habit doesn’t help you stop being neurotic. But it can help you use this trait for good, and manage your negative feelings arising from it.
Neuroticism tends to have a bit of a bad connotation. But as we saw above, it has some great things going for it. From better risk detection to greater empathy, it can be a great gift in some situations.
To make the most of it, you first need to accept it and embrace it. Familiarize yourself with the benefits of this often misunderstood trait.
And know that you’re in great company. Many creative geniuses and successful entrepreneurs were and are neurotics, including:
- Albert Einstein.
- Isaac Newton.
- Winston Churchill.
- Steve Jobs.
- Elon Musk.
14. Accept your emotions
When trying to be less neurotic, people often confuse management and suppression.
Feelings won’t harm you in themselves. In fact, people who are more accepting of their emotions may have:
- Greater well-being.
- Happier moods.
- Hower depression.
One tactic that may help is naming your emotions as they come up. Try to be detailed rather than using vague labels like “upset”. You can even mentally say hi to them as you notice them as if you are letting guests into your home.
Don’t be afraid to sit with negative feelings. Psychologist Kristin Naragon-Gainey says the more you avoid them, the more they increase.
Tolerating negative emotions when they come up and letting them fade away naturally helps keep you calm and your reactions in check.Kristin Naragon-Gainey
If you’d like to learn more about this, the book Constructive Wallowing has been a real eye-opener for me.
15. Use the “opposite to emotion/action” technique
Emotions exist to prod us to action. We feel hungry, so we go in search of food. We feel scared, so we run away from danger. And when we feel tired, we lie down to recover our energy.
But when neuroticism is high, negative emotions tend to activate dysfunctional behavior. You can break this cycle by using the “opposite to emotion/action” approach.
This basically means you act opposite to what your emotions urge you to do. For example, if you feel like screaming or cursing, speak politely and calmly instead. If you tend to withdraw when you feel depressed, reach out to a friend.
Doing this regularly can help you develop healthier behaviors. Eventually, you can reduce the negative emotions altogether.
Of course, I realize this is much easier said than done! The trick is being able to tell when your negative feelings are warranted, and you should act on them — and when they are overblown.
16. Learn to hide negative emotions
Being neurotic comes with being emotionally reactive — displaying emotional reactions. If you need to curb the effect this has on others, work on hiding them.
You can feel however you want inside — you have little control over that. But others don’t have to know unless you show it with your facial expressions, words, and body language.
And that’s something you can consciously control.
This doesn’t mean suppressing your emotions. You’re not bottling them up or denying how you feel. You acknowledge how you feel internally — but choose to not let it show. You can feel something, even intensely, without acting on it.
If the emotions keep trying to burst out, promise yourself to give them attention later. For example, set aside 15 minutes each day before bedtime to reflect on any strong emotions from the day.
Your mind will rest assured that your emotions will be heard. You’ll be able to let go of them more easily in the present.
17. Stop, look, listen, smell.
This is a tactic that has been used by the military for a long time. It encourages you to stop and shift your attention to your surroundings.
You can only think about one thing at a time. So if you focus on your physical sensations, you are crowding out anxiety (at least at that moment).
Psychiatrist Mark Goulston breaks it down:
- Stop: Stop what you’re doing. Recognize your worrying is unproductive and spinning out of control.
- Look: Look around you, and identify something you’ve never noticed or paid attention to. It could be the fabric on your couch, a tree, or a button on an appliance.
- Listen: What do you hear? A neighbor’s lawnmower? A bird chirping? Is your freezer humming? Can you associate that noise with something positive? (Like the backyard of your childhood home or tasty ice cream?)
- Smell: Smell something—coffee, perfume, a flower, etc. Inhale slowly through your nose, expanding your belly to fill your lungs with air. Then exhale through your mouth.
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Though being neurotic can be challenging, I hope this article has shown you that it does have a bright silver lining. Moreover, there are many proven ways to be less neurotic — you now know plenty. I hope you find success in implementing these habits and tips! Let me know your experience in the comments.