Long embraced by psychologists as a solid personality metric with the power to predict related behaviors, the Big Five index includes (you guessed it) five traits, one of which is neuroticism, or a disposition to experience stress and other emotions more intensely; the others are extroversion, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness. Each of these traits are understood as a continuum, such that any given person wouldn’t be either neurotic or not, for instance, but would fall somewhere between a very high level of the trait and a very low one.
That’s an essential distinction to note because the term “neurotic” is often thrown around instead as something indicative of a negative “condition”—which is a relic of its association with the obsolete term, “neurosis,” says clinical psychologist Monica Vermani, C. Psych, author of A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety, and Traumas. “‘Neurosis’ was removed from the DSM [which is psychiatrists’ manual of mental-health disorders] decades ago, and symptoms once linked with it now fall under the more specific categories of anxiety or mood disorders,” she says.
Neuroticism is, crucially, a personality trait—not a disorder.
Rethinking neuroticism, instead, as a personality trait (and not a disorder) also requires tossing any lingering sexist connotations of being neurotic. “In the late '50s and '60s, it was prevalent for people to characterize a woman as neurotic if she was experiencing anxiety,” says therapist Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW. But now we know there’s a clear distinction between being anxious (which can certainly happen in a person with high levels of neuroticism) and having an anxiety disorder—and gendering the language around either anxiousness or anxiety is not rooted in scientific accuracy.
How to test your level of neuroticism using the Big Five inventory
Because neuroticism is one of the five traits thought to make up the full picture of personality, you can test your level of it most accurately by taking an online Big Five personality test. Though there are a handful of Big Five tests out there—all of them reflecting a body of personality research on the specific traits dating back decades—this one, adapted from the Big Five Inventory that was developed at Berkeley Personality Lab, is often considered the most user-friendly free version available. (While it’s a helpful tool for introspection, it’s worth noting, however, that it isn’t designed to give the kind of well-rounded diagnostic analysis that a mental-health professional could provide.)
The test asks you to rate how you identify with each of 61 statements using a five-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree. They all start with “I am somehow who…” and include things like, “is relaxed, handles stress well,” “tends to be lazy,” and “stays optimistic after a setback.” Of course, the more self-aware you are of your own tendencies and the more honestly you report them, the more accurate the results for each trait will be. (That’s also why the site suggests using the test to rate someone else, and having them do the same for you, in order to get a truer assessment.)
Though these test statements aren’t separated based on which of the five traits they’re measuring, any of them that relate to stress, worries, and anxiousness will likely factor into your neuroticism score, as the trait is often more prevalent in people who struggle to bounce back after difficult events, says Dr. Vermani.
Your results will come in the form of a dot placed on a line indicating the continuum for each of the five traits; that dot shows the extent to which you express that trait as compared to all the other test-takers in your same age group (the traits are known to vary with age) and gender. (Because it’s tough to separate historical perceptions of these traits from gender norms, this comparison of folks by gender is a notable and exclusionary limitation of the test.)
How to understand your result from the Big Five test for neuroticism
If your dot on the neuroticism scale falls to the right side of the continuum (and reflects a percentile above 50), you likely express more neuroticism than the average person of your age and gender, whereas the opposite is true if your dot falls to the left side of the scale. But exactly how this trait shows up in your personality will vary—and it’s the context, not the extent of the trait itself, that matters when you’re assessing if it’s serving you well or... not so much.
“People high in neuroticism may get more easily irritated by stressful or noisy situations, are prone to overthinking, and may have difficulty relaxing.” —Cynthia V. Catchings, LCSW, therapist
“People high in neuroticism may get more easily irritated by stressful or noisy situations, are prone to overthinking, and may have difficulty relaxing,” says Catchings. And to the extent that any of those realities has an impact on a person’s day-to-day well-being, sleep quality, or relationships, high neuroticism could certainly be problematic. In fact, several studies have found the trait to be more prevalent in folks with anxiety, mood disorders, and depression.
That said, there’s also a positive side to neuroticism: The same overly analytical or worrisome temperament of a highly neurotic person that can make them emotionally unstable in some situations can also work in their favor in others, says Dr. Vermani: “A [neurotic] tendency to pay close and concerted attention to negative outcomes or risks may help people survive in difficult or threatening situations.”
Research has identified this upside of neuroticism as “anxiety-provoked vigilance,” or, generally, the tendency for a neurotic person to be more aware of the potential consequences of risky actions, and therefore less likely to engage in them. But, it’s worth noting that this health-supportive benefit is more common in folks who score high on both the scales for neuroticism and conscientiousness (aka the trait of diligence and self-discipline), a combination that’s been called the “healthy neurotic.”
However it presents, knowing your relative level of neuroticism based on the above test can give you some insight into why you might act the way you do—but, again, a high or low result isn't necessarily diagnostic of an issue. A whole bunch of biological and environmental factors could play into your result, says Catchings, “and there’s no right or wrong personality, just more to love if you can accept yourself for who you are.”
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