Neuroticism predicts anxiety and depression disorders

January 27, 2016, Northwestern University
Credit: George Hodan/Public Domain

A new Northwestern University and UCLA study has found for the first time that young people who are high on the personality trait of neuroticism are highly likely to develop both anxiety and depression disorders.

"Neuroticism was an especially strong predictor of the particularly pernicious state of developing both anxiety and depressive disorders," said Richard Zinbarg, lead author of the study and professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern.

Earlier research has shown that is associated with substance abuse, mood and but hadn't tested whether these associations are comparable in strength.

But the Northwestern and UCLA study found for the first time that neuroticism predicts mood and anxiety disorders more strongly.

"It's been my professional dream to be able to prevent the development of anxiety disorders and in people who would have otherwise experienced them," said Zinbarg, director of clinical psychology at Northwestern. "We have pretty good treatments once people have already started suffering from them. We do a lot less on prevention."

Researchers who study largely agree that of the five major dimensions of , neuroticism is the trait most relevant for developing nearly all forms of psychopathology. The other four personality traits are extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness.

The study included 547 participants recruited as high school juniors at two Chicago and Los Angeles high schools. The study results, Zinbarg said, point the way toward a relatively cost-effective and broad-based program of prevention.

High schools students, he said, could be given a questionnaire on neuroticism—either via paper and pencil or administered online—that determines their standing on that personality trait.

"We can identify those kids that we should be targeting—that's the first implication," Zinbarg said.

The goal would be to design a prevention that would not only prevent depression or anxiety disorders but reduce risks for both, given that they've got a common risk factor.

"It should be possible to reduce simultaneously, through a single intervention, the risk for anxiety as well as for depression and help people cope much better," Zinbarg said.

The results also shed light on a theoretical controversy about neuroticism and its definition.

"Some, including me, believe that neuroticism is somewhat specific," Zinbarg said. "The theorists in this camp believe that neuroticism makes people more susceptible to the negative emotions—anxiety, depression, irritability, anger."

Others believe that neuroticism heightens susceptibility to emotions in general, including those that are positive. In that view, neuroticism would be as much a predictor of disorders of excess, like gambling or substance use, as of disorders that involve inhibition and pain.

The Northwestern and UCLA team did study substance use and found that neuroticism was not as strong a predictor of substance use disorders as anxiety disorders and depression.

"The study's results strongly suggest that neuroticism is more sensitive to threat than emotional reactivity writ large," Zinbarg said.

Explore further: Anxiety significantly raises risk for dementia

More information: "Prospective prediction of anxiety and mood disorders" will publish in an upcoming edition of Clinical Psychological Science.

Related Stories

Anxiety significantly raises risk for dementia

December 18, 2015
People who experienced high anxiety any time in their lives had a 48 percent higher risk of developing dementia compared to those who had not, according to a new study led by USC researchers.

Is neuroticism fueled by overthinking?

August 27, 2015
Isaac Newton was a classic neurotic. He was a brooder and a worrier, prone to dwelling on the scientific problems before him as well as his childhood sins. But Newton also had creative breakthroughs—thoughts on physics ...

Gender and personality differences in cancer-related pain severity for geriatric patients

June 11, 2015
With 75% of cancer patients in the UK over 60, and the costs of innovative drugs soaring, how to best identify and hopefully manage cancer-related pain in the elderly is a key issue. A new study published in the Journal of ...

More can mean less when it comes to being happier -- especially if you are neurotic

June 9, 2012
New research from the University of Warwick suggests getting more money may not make you happier, especially if you are neurotic.

Neurotics don't just avoid action: They dislike it

April 22, 2014
That person we all seem to know who we say is neurotic and unable to take action? Turns out he or she isn't unable to act but simply doesn't want to.

Recommended for you

Researchers identify brain mechanism linking PTSD and opioid addiction

April 23, 2018
Researchers at Western University have shown that the recall of traumatic memories enhances the rewarding effects of morphine, shedding light on the neurobiological link between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and opioid ...

Scientific guidelines for using cannabis to treat stress, anxiety and depression

April 19, 2018
In a first-of-a-kind study, Washington State University scientists examined how peoples' self-reported levels of stress, anxiety and depression were affected by smoking different strains and quantities of cannabis at home.

Neuroscientists use magnetic stimulation to amplify PTSD therapy

April 19, 2018
Researchers from The University of Texas at Dallas have found that a standard therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is more effective when paired with transcranial magnetic stimulation of the brain.

Research reveals stronger people have healthier brains

April 19, 2018
A study of nearly half a million people has revealed that muscular strength, measured by handgrip, is an indication of how healthy our brains are.

Study suggests we can recognize speakers only from how faces move when talking

April 18, 2018
Results of a new study by cognitive psychologist and speech scientist Alexandra Jesse and her linguistics undergraduate student Michael Bartoli at the University of Massachusetts Amherst should help to settle a long-standing ...

Scientists disconfirm belief that humans' physiological reaction to emotions are uniform

April 18, 2018
How do you feel when you're angry? Tense? Jittery? Exhausted? Is it the same every time? Is it identical to how your best friend, co-worker, or barista feel when they experience anger? In all likelihood the answer is no, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.