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Neurosis (also known as psychoneurosis) is defined as “a functional disorder in which feelings of anxiety, obsessional thoughts, compulsive acts, and physical complaints without object evidence of disease, in various degrees and patterns, dominates the personality”.

In layman’s terms, neuroticism is essentially a state of being anxiety-ridden and high strung, often to leading to repetitive behaviors that may interrupt normal functioning. According to Gregg Henriques, Ph.D. of Psychology Today, the term “neurotic” is not used as often as it was during its period of popularity with psychologists throughout the 20th century. It is important to note that neurotic and psychotic, although the two may share some traits, are different in that those who suffer from neurotic behaviors still maintain contact with reality, whereas those with a psychosis may not.

What Does Neuroticism Look Like?

The word “neurotic” applies not only to a broad spectrum of personality traits, which tend to stabilize in adulthood, but also to the manifestation of these traits into a person’s adaptations to real life in the way they handle their environment and the stressors in it. These coping mechanisms are usually fear or anxiety driven and triggered by specific types of situations. The defenses neurotics use are normally unhealthy and do not productively move the individual closer to their wants, needs, and aspirations.

It is generally accepted that everyone is neurotic to some degree. Most people have, at some point, had a nervous moment that compels them to drive back to their house to make sure the door was locked when leaving on vacation, or bitten their nails in response to anxiety over a worry or event.

When these neuroses become unhealthy is when people manifest them in a way that displays unreasonable emotional reactivity. One example Dr. Henriques uses is of a patient who, upon her date being ten minutes late, called the man on the phone and nervously inquired whether he was coming, and when would he be there. These behaviors allow the emotional upheaval felt on the inside to affect one’s relationships, almost always having the opposite of the effect desired by the inner compulsion that motivated the behavior in the first place.