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

Unwanted or unplanned babies likely have more troubled close relationships

August 15, 2018
Findings appearing in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships show people who believe they resulted from unwanted or unplanned pregnancies tend to have more insecure relationship styles as adults.

Researchers link animosity in couples to inflammation, bacteria in bloodstream

August 15, 2018
Married people who fight nastily are more likely to suffer from leaky guts—a problem that unleashes bacteria into the blood and can drive up disease-causing inflammation, new research suggests.

Potent psychedelic DMT mimics near-death experience in the brain

August 14, 2018
A powerful psychedelic compound found in ayahuasca can model near-death experiences in the brain, a study has found.

How we explain the behavior of others depends on our beliefs about their 'true selves'

August 14, 2018
Why did they do that? It's a question we ask every day in attempting to understand the behavior of others and make meaning of the world around us. How we answer the question, however, varies depending on our moral attitudes ...

The science behind rooting for the home team

August 14, 2018
Young children often observe society dividing its members—by ethnicity, religion, gender, or even favorite sports team. But a review by a Yale psychologist published August 14 in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences ...

When head injuries make life too hard, suicide risk may rise

August 14, 2018
(HealthDay)—Traumatic brain injury can trigger a daily struggle with headaches, neck pain, dizziness and thinking problems that may drive some to suicide, researchers report.

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.