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Personality traits and anxiety disorders are closely connected; in fact some argue that anxiety can be a personality trait in itself. Understanding personality traits can help identify those at risk of developing an anxiety disorder and help treatment.
Personality traits and the majority of anxiety disorders appear to be closely connected; in fact some argue that anxiety can be a personality trait in itself. Personality traits refer generally to ways of thinking, feeling and acting that can be observed as differences in individuals in various situations.

There are a number of key areas in which specific personality traits have been observed in those with anxiety.

  • Overthinking. Anxiety causes people to overthink and over-analyze all aspects of their lives and social interactions, so is a key trait of those with anxiety. With overthinking, you are immersed in a destructive thought process which engages your “inner critic”: that is, the voice that focuses upon the negative aspects of a situation.

  • Perfectionism. Perfectionism is where a person sets high standards for themselves and others, and has a tendency to be highly self-critical. Perfectionism is so damaging because the person becomes focused upon avoiding failure rather than achieving success so a negative outlook dominates. It is of course not achievable as perfection is impossible. It often leads to procrastination – where you avoid doing the thing altogether rather than confront doing it and not doing it perfectly. Two anxiety disorders where perfectionism appears to be a feature are generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder.

  • Resistance to change. This trait refers to the triggering of emotional anxiety in response to the prospect of change. Being temperamentally inclined to this way of being will lead you to be less inclined to “step outside of your comfort zone” and so when the prospect of having to change your routine is faced, the individual has no previous experience of change being good to draw upon. Likewise, anxiety itself can lead someone to be resistant to change as a means of avoiding perceived threats and a sense of certainty.

  • Empathy. High levels of anxiety can have an influence upon your ability to be empathic; likewise, those with high levels of empathy are inclined towards anxiety as they fret about problems and ruminate on how to make things better. Their consideration of others' sensibilities can also lead them to overthink social interactions, and feel shame about mistakes.

  • Irritability. Many people who are anxious can have high levels of irritability and especially when they are at their most anxious.

  • Vivid imagination. A vivid imagination can feed anxiety: when we are anxious we formulate scenarios in our heads and when these don't work out as anticipated, this can make us feel anxious. A strong imagination can also feed the tendency in anxiety to develop disproportionate and irrational fears.

  • Avoidance. Those who tend to be avoidant are likely to experience more emotional distress when confronted with situations that they do not feel in control of. Avoidance also reinforces anxiety as we learn to associate retreating from the situation that has generated distress with a reduction in the discomfort.

The big five

In psychology, the most common approach to understanding personality traits is to categorize them into five key areas known as The Big Five or OCEAN model:

  • Openness

  • Conscientiousness

  • Extraversion

  • Agreeableness

  • Neuroticism

Personality traits such as high neuroticism, low extraversion and low conscientiousness have been found in research to be markers of risk for some anxiety disorders; likewise, anxiety disorders in early life can also have an influence upon personality development. Research has found that those with extreme personality traits tend to report more dysfunction from their anxiety disorders. The presence of neuroticism is regarded as the single strongest predictor of mental health issues such as anxiety and also general “ill-being” and physical health issues. Interestingly, women tend to score more highly on neuroticism, whilst also typically reporting higher levels of anxiety disorders than men.

What is neuroticism?

Neuroticism was originally described when presented in the 1960's as indicative of general emotional instability and tendency to be anxious. It was hypothesized to be rooted in the limbic system which is an area that is associated with the regulation of emotional expression and the control of autonomic responses. This early research concluded that neurotic individuals display higher levels of autonomic reactivity.

More contemporary definitions regard neuroticism as simply the tendency to experience negative feelings. Neuroticism is about not being confident and comfortable in your own skin and those high in neuroticism traits are predisposed to anxiety, low mood, and low self-esteem. They may be temperamental emotionally or quick to anger (emotionally reactive), and they are often self-conscious and lack self-assurance. They often react to events that others are not affected by, and with greater intensity. Ordinary situations are more likely to be perceived as threatening, and minor frustrations as overwhelmingly difficult. Put simply, those with neuroticism traits tend to be more emotionally reactive, whereas those with less tend to be less emotionally reactive.

These negative emotional responses can often linger for some time which can render the person with neurotic traits as often in “a bad mood”. Unfortunately emotional dysregulation such as this can have a significant impact upon your ability to think clearly, make decisions, and manage stress effectively. Those with strong neurotic traits are are not strangers to anxiety or other mood disorders, and report experiencing several of these emotions regularly. Neuroticism is regarded to be the key factor dictating your emotional stability and reactions to stimulus.

So in summary, if you have strong neurotic personality traits, it means you are:

  • Highly sensitive to stressors.

  • More likely to experience negative emotions more frequently.

  • More likely to experience more intense reactions.

  • Your reactions will last longer and you will be slower to return to normal.

High trait neuroticism is a useful model as it offers a way for many people to understand what makes them vulnerable to mood disorders such as anxiety and help them to understand that the way they manage their reactions influences mood states. This insight often enables people to accept their feelings and know that a systematic approach (such as cognitive-behavioral therapy) to processing their feelings can be beneficial. Neurotic people tend to have higher than average levels of self-awareness therefore having accurate and high-quality psychological information is key to personal development and effective therapeutic work.

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