By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Self-deprecating comedians and complainers wear their neuroticism as a badge of honor. In truth, the negatively biased are more prone to depression, anxiety, self-consciousness and hypochondria, to name just a few behavioral tripwires. Neuroticism is no fun for anyone.” – Psychology Today
We often speak of people being neurotic. But, do we really know what we’re talking about? Do we really know what it is? Neurosis is actually an outdated diagnosis that is no longer used medically. The disorders that were once classified as a neurosis are now more accurately categorized as post-traumatic stress disorder, somatization disorders, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, dissociation disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and adjustment disorder.
Neuroticism, however, is considered a personality trait that is a lasting characteristic of the individual. It is characterized by negative feelings, repetitive thinking about the past (rumination), and worry about the future, moodiness and loneliness. It appears to be linked to vulnerability to stress. People who have this characteristic are not happy with life and have a low subjective sense of well-being and recognize that this state is unacceptable. There is some hope for people with high neuroticism as this relatively stable characteristic appears to be lessened by mindfulness training. This is potentially important and deserves further investigation.
In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Neuroticism (Stress Vulnerability): A Pilot Randomized Study.” See:
Armstrong and Rimes examined the ability of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to treat individuals high in neuroticism. They randomly assigned participants with high neuroticism to either an 8-week, once a week for 2-hours, MBCT treatment group or and on-line self-help treatment control group. Measures were taken before and 4-weeks after treatment of mindfulness, neuroticism, impairment in everyday functioning, anxiety, depressive symptoms, self-compassion, beliefs about emotions, rumination, and decentering.
They found that after treatment in comparisons to the control group the MBCT group had significantly lower neuroticism scores, and rumination, and a trend toward lower functional impairment due to stress. In addition, the MBCT group had significantly higher self-compassion and decentering and trends toward lessened unhelpful beliefs and emotions and higher mindfulness. Surprisingly, since MBCT was developed specifically to treat depression, there were no significant differences in anxiety or depression.
These results are interesting and potentially important. This, however, was a pilot study that had relatively small group sizes (17). The fact that significant differences were detected nonetheless indicates that the effects were fairly strong. The results clearly indicate that a larger randomized controlled trial is called for.
Mindfulness may affect neuroticism in a number of ways. By focusing the individual on the present moment, mindfulness should lessen the neuroticism characteristics of rumination about the past and worry about the future. Mindfulness is also known to reduce the psychological and physiological responses to stress and stress is known to contribute to neuroticism. Finally, mindfulness has been shown to produce heightened emotion regulation. So, the mindful individual feels and appreciates their emotions but responds appropriately and adaptively. This should lessen the moodiness, negative feelings, and loneliness characteristic of neuroticism. So, it is not surprising the mindfulness based treatments would be effective in lowering neuroticism. This is a hopeful development, as people high in neuroticism are very unhappy people. Mindfulness may provide some relief and help them toward a happier life.
So, improve neuroticism with mindfulness.
“Being in the moment with those thoughts and recognizing them for what they are has really helped me to kind of shove them aside, or to kind of diffuse them,” she says. “I think it’s really helped me become a more aware person of what other people might be feeling.” – JoSelle Vanderhooft
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Armstrong L, Rimes KA. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Neuroticism (Stress Vulnerability): A Pilot Randomized Study. Behav Ther. 2016 May;47(3):287-98. doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2015.12.005. Epub 2016 Jan 5. PMID: 27157024. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2015.12.005
- A new MBCT intervention for neuroticism versus online general self-help is examined
- Compared with self-help, MBCT results in significantly lower levels of neuroticism
- Rumination and self-compassion improved more in the MBCT group than the control group
- MBCT is an acceptable and feasible intervention for neuroticism
- Neuroticism may be amenable to change through psychological intervention
Objective: Neuroticism, a characteristic associated with increased stress vulnerability and the tendency to experience distress, is strongly linked to risk of different forms of psychopathology. However, there are few evidence-based interventions to target neuroticism. This pilot study investigated the efficacy and acceptability of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) compared with an online self-help intervention for individuals with high levels of neuroticism. The MBCT was modified to address psychological processes that are characteristic of neuroticism. Method: Participants with high levels of neuroticism were randomized to MBCT (n = 17) or an online self-help intervention (n = 17). Self-report questionnaires were administered preintervention and again at 4 weeks postintervention. Results: Intention-to-treat analyses found that MBCT participants had significantly lower levels of neuroticism postintervention than the control group. Compared with the control group, the MBCT group also experienced significant reductions in rumination and increases in self-compassion and decentering, of which the latter two were correlated with reductions in neuroticism within the MBCT group. Low drop-out rates, high levels of adherence to home practice, and positive feedback from MBCT participants provide indications that this intervention may be an acceptable form of treatment for individuals who are vulnerable to becoming easily stressed. Conclusions: MBCT specifically modified to target neuroticism-related processes is a promising intervention for reducing neuroticism. Results support evidence suggesting neuroticism is malleable and amenable to psychological intervention. MBCT for neuroticism warrants further investigation in a larger study.