“Neurotic” is another psychiatric term that has been adapted into everyday-language. When you think of someone as neurotic, they’re typically nervous, anxious, high-strung. Maybe they have attention problems or can be a little snappy. Neuroticism in and of itself is not a disorder. You can be a little neurotic or erratic without having a psychiatric illness. Like any disorder, the problem comes in when the behavior has a noticeably negative impact on your life. Neuroticism can be a disorder on its own. However, it’s also common in many psychiatric disorders including OCD, major depressive disorder, borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder.
When a person perceives a threat where there is none or perceives a threat as more severe than it actually is, it’s called neuroticism. In psychiatric disorders this doesn’t just happen after you get out of a scary movie and are jumpy for the rest of the night. It’s a way of life. Dr. Adam Perkins of King’s College London and his research team recently published a study that attempts to explain what’s happening in the brain during these neurotic thought processes and the impacts on patients’ lives.
Neuroticism comes out especially when a person is left alone with their own thoughts. Most people daydream. Time to take a brain vacation to the beach and relax. For those high on neuroticism, the brain tends to go the other way. Not to say that it will always choose the negative, but often it takes everyday worries like concerns about your job or relationships and amps them up and into the abstract. You start thinking about what happened earlier and what you did wrong. You could go down a different path and pull a threat from thin air and ruminate on the horrible things that could happen next. The problem with trying to avoid this thought process is that it is grounded in reality. You can’t just dismiss it as if you were worried about being eaten by a dragon. It’s easy to remind yourself that won’t happen. It’s not so easy when you’re obsessing over whether or not you could lose your job.
So what is going on in the brain when these thoughts are bouncing around and landing in anxiety? Everyone gets anxious. Everyone can suffer horrible thoughts and have nightmares. It turns out that brain structure and connectivity anomalies found in psychiatric illnesses such as depression make going down a negative path easier and can therefore increase neuroticism. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for most of our “higher” thinking. It helps us rationalize. It’s where our creativity comes from. Also involved are the amygdala and the hippocampus. Irregularities found in these structures are found in patients with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder. These same characteristics can also be associated with neuroticism.
It may be easier to take a negative thought-path, but that means it’s easier to take a different path altogether. There are benefits to neuroticism, after all. For one, there is less need for instant gratification. Those with neuroticism can focus on the long-run a lot more easily than those without. It also opens up room for imagination.
Creativity is the bonus of dealing with neuroticism. This is why the stereotype of the creative genius exists. If you spend a lot of your time thinking about problems, you’re bound to come up with a solution or two. Beyond problems, the mere desire to express those pesky thoughts can bring about a myriad of creativity. Dance, writing, art, music. All of these things require a unique interpretation of life, one that is more easily accessed through neuroticism and those same anomalies that create anxiety and rumination.
The key is finding a balance. Sometimes there has to be a tradeoff. Cognitive behavioral therapy often focuses on shifting negative self-thoughts to positive self-thoughts, and it works. However, when you shift your thought process you may lose something in the interim. Creativity can be lifeblood to those who suffer from psychiatric disorders. It’s the only way to get it all out and not be dragged down by the noise in your mind.
So we may want to keep a little neuroticism, if only a bit.
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