Maybe you know someone prone to worrying, or have noticed your own anxious thoughts creeping in as the Covid pandemic unfurls. Does all that extra thinking make you better off or worse? Let's talk with an expert.
Some of us worry more than others. This varies from person to person, and most of us probably have an idea about where we fall along the spectrum. I can admit (and my family will gladly tell you) I touch down on the high end of this scale. Psychologists call it “neuroticism.”
“People who are high on this trait tend to feel negative emotions, like anxiety or sadness, more frequently and more strongly,” according to Sara Weston, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon. “They are also more likely to experience emotional instability, meaning they might jump from one emotion to the next more quickly or more often. Neuroticism's relationship to health can be quite complicated, especially in terms of understanding causality. For example, people who are high in neuroticism are more likely to receive diagnoses of hypertension, pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease (Weston, Hill, & Jackson, 2015). But is that because being high in neuroticism makes you less healthy? Or does being in worse health make you anxious or sad?”
“The truth is probably a bit of both,” she says. “For example, we know that people high in neuroticism are more likely to experience stress, which can in turn weaken our cardiovascular (Juster et al., 2015) and immune systems (Gouin, 2010). What's more, these same individuals are more likely to cope with stress with unhealthy habits, like smoking (Hakulinen et al., 2015). On the other hand, neuroticism is also associated with increased vigilance (Weston & Jackson, 2018). What this means is that people high in neuroticism report paying more attention to how their body feels and changes, suggesting this may help them catch signs of worse health sooner.”
Are there cases in which being neurotic might improve health?
Or is it fair to consider this a "negative" trait?
Well for one thing, highly neurotic individuals “are more likely to seek medical help and receive diagnoses than people with similar health conditions but with lower anxiety,” according to Dr. Weston. So if your neuroticism leads you to seek medical treatment when appropriate, that could be a good thing. However, neurotic individuals also tend to have worse health overall—that association is clear. “But we don't know how much of that is due to chronic stress and unhealthy coping strategies and how much is just a perception of worse health.” Dr. Weston and colleagues are actively investigating this "healthy neuroticism" hypothesis, but so far evidence to support it has been hard to come by.
In the face of the current crisis there is a lot to think about — from understanding how exactly the virus spreads, to following the important advice of washing hands, not touching your face, and avoiding public gatherings (to name a few). We also know that merely thinking about the problem doesn’t help — and that unproductive worrying will just weigh you down.
As for the neuroticism research, “It comes as a shock to approximately no person that our personalities can have an impact on our health,” Weston jokes … but “precisely identifying the ways in which our personalities have that impact can be quite difficult.” It sounds like some of the most exciting work is yet to come. As psychologists team up with health networks and other collaborators, and as modern forms of data access, collection, and analysis improve, our understanding of these questions continues to become clearer.
In the meantime, we should probably all give ourselves a little break. Chronic stress certainly isn't part of the solution (at least not by the most recent CDC guides: https://www.cdc.gov.)
Gouin, J. (2010). Chronic Stress, Immune Dysregulation, and Health American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 5(6), 476-485. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1559827610395467
Hakulinen, C., Hintsanen, M., Munafò, M., Virtanen, M., Kivimäki, M., Batty, G., Jokela, M. (2015). Personality and smoking: individual-participant meta-analysis of nine cohort studies Addiction 110(11), 1844 1852. https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/add.13079
Juster, R., McEwen, B., Lupien, S. (2010). Allostatic load biomarkers of chronic stress and impact on health and cognition Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 35(1), 2-16. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2009.10.002
Larsen, R. (1992). Neuroticism and selective encoding and recall of symptoms: Evidence from a combined concurrent-retrospective study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 62(3), 480 488. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2060
Watson, D., Pennebaker, J. (1989). Health complaints, stress, and distress: Exploring the central role of negative affectivity. Psychological review 96(2), 234 254. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295x.96.2.234
Weston, S., Hill, P., Jackson, J. (2015). Personality Traits Predict the Onset of Disease Social Psychological and Personality Science 6(3), 309-317. https://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1948550614553248
Weston, S., Jackson, J. (2018). The role of vigilance in the relationship between neuroticism and health: A registered report Journal of Research in Personality 73(), 27-34. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2017.10.005
If it helps, tell us how you've been feeling in the comments!