The word “neurotic” might conjure up images of lovable worry-warts such as Seinfeld’s George Costanza or comic strip icon Charlie Brown, who famously lamented, “My anxieties have anxieties.” But true neuroticism—a personality trait that describes people who are prone to anxiety, self-consciousness, irritability, emotional instability and depression—is no laughing matter. Neurotic individuals worry excessively, often about things that they have no control over, and they are more likely to develop a variety of psychological conditions, from mood disorders to substance abuse.
Now, a new study published in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society has linked neuroticism with an increased risk for a specific type of predementia called non-amnestic mild cognitive impairment (MCI), in which one’s memory remains relatively unscathed but language, visual-spatial skills, decision-making, planning and/or other cognitive abilities become impaired.
Researchers followed 524 adults ages 65 years and older for three years, examining what effects, if any, their personality type had on their cognitive functioning. They focused on the “Big Five” dimensions of personality—agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness, openness and neuroticism. That last one proved to be the troublemaker, associated with a 6% increased risk for non-amnestic MCI.
Individuals with non-amnestic MCI, in turn, are thought to be at increased risk for Lewy body dementia, a disease in which abnormal protein deposits accumulate in the brain, impairing thinking, behavior, mood and movement.
What Is Neuroticism?
People tend to use the word “neurotic” loosely. In order to be clinically neurotic, one tends to ruminate constantly but that doesn’t provide any relief from their anxiety. Instead, their worries simply beget more worries, and their thoughts often are tinged with negative emotions such as angst, sadness, anger or disgust. These people often have trouble leaving anything to chance and live life with a perpetually pessimistic point of view.
If a neurotic person was, say, waiting for his/her doctor to call with important test results, each passing moment without the phone ringing would be interpreted as, I must have cancer…that’s why the doctor is taking so long. In contrast, someone who tends toward openness or agreeableness (two of the other Big Five personality traits) might think, The doctor is calling other patients who do have cancer, and that’s not me. Interestingly, unlike neuroticism, openness is believed to be protective against dementia.
Chronic worry bathes the body and brain in the stress hormone cortisol. In short bursts, cortisol can help motivate people through challenging times and even keep them safe from danger—it’s one of the key focus-sharpening hormones released when your brain senses a threat, such as a dog running toward you or a car cutting you off in traffic. But with chronic worrying, elevated cortisol levels damage brain cells and shrink the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center.
Train Yourself to Be Less Neurotic
Just because you’re a natural worrier doesn’t mean that you’re destined for cognitive trouble. There are ways to temper your neuroticism. The payoff may come not only in the form of healthier brain functioning but also as reduced anxiety, less pessimism, improved memory and/or focus. And this can lead to an overall improved quality of life.
Strategy #1: Boost the bonding hormone. During times of bonding, such as cuddling, breast-feeding or orgasm, the brain secretes the hormone oxytocin. Besides promoting attachment between two individuals, this so-called “love hormone” also helps reduce cortisol levels. That’s one reason cuddling feels so relaxing and enjoyable. New research also suggests that oxytocin may have a preservative effect on brain functioning. It’s a win-win!
When it comes to oxytocin, snuggling and sex get all the attention, but there’s another way to get your love hormones flowing—by talking with someone you trust and who makes you feel heard. When you allow yourself to open up to a friend, family member or even a therapist and that person treats you with kindness and empathy, you experience a surge of oxytocin. As a result, you feel less alone and you help rewire your brain in a way that promotes openness, trust and optimism.
Strategy #2: Try this spin on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of talk therapy that helps individuals change their distorted thought patterns and damaging behaviors. One popular CBT strategy involves catching yourself in harmful thinking in the moment and then reframing it in a more logical way. Here’s how you can do this without a therapist…
Buy a journal, and paste a photo of a loved one—someone who cares about you or someone you look up to—inside the front cover. This person can be living or deceased. When your neurotic worrying starts to ramp up, grab your journal, look at the photo, and imagine the person saying, You can get through this. Or, if it suits his/her personality, imagine him saying, with love, Stop it! You’re fine!!
Now, picture that person asking you about your worrying and write down your answers. Questions can include, What happened that got you worried?…How did you feel when it happened?…What does it make you want to do?…What would happen if you did that?…How likely is your worry going to come true?…and Look at me, take a deep breath, and tell me what would be a better thing to do? Writing your responses acts as a neuroticism-release tool…and because you’ve invoked the image of a caring, empathetic person, you feel seen and heard, which sparks oxytocin.
Strategy #3: Stop, look, listen, smell. Long practiced by the military, this technique encourages you to pause and focus on your surroundings. The stop-look-listen aspect is widely known, and in the context of anxiety, these action items help force you to focus on something else.
The addition of smell makes it a game-changer when it comes to calming the nervous system. Smelling your environment requires inhaling deeply through the nose. Doing this also stimulates the vagus nerve, which connects the brain to almost every organ in the body. When stimulated, the vagus nerve initiates the body’s natural relaxation response, eases anxiety and enhances mood. While you’re smelling what you smell, make an internal association that is pleasurable—for instance, the smell of gasoline may remind you of pleasant road trips with your family or the smell of perfume or lotion may remind you of a scent you associated with a loving grandmother.
The next time you get caught up in a cycle of neurotic worrying, try the SLLS protocol…
Stop: Stop what you’re doing…recognize your worrying is unproductive and spinning out of control.
Look: Look around you, and identify something you’ve never noticed or paid attention to. It could be the fabric on your couch, a tree, a button on an appliance. After observing the object for 30 seconds or so…
Listen: What do you hear? A neighbor’s lawnmower? A bird chirping? Your freezer humming? Can you associate that noise with something positive, such as the backyard of your childhood home or tasty ice cream?
Smell: Smell something—coffee, perfume, a flower. Inhale slowly through your nose, expanding your belly to fill your lungs with air, then exhale through your mouth.
A note on medication: Sometimes neurotic worrying can grow so out of control that no amount of journaling or talking or professional counseling can tame it. In these cases, antianxiety medication may be an appropriate next step. For short-term help, your doctor may prescribe a fast-acting antianxiety drug called a benzodiazepine, such as Xanax (alprazolam) or Ativan (lorazepam). They work quickly to punch a hole in your anxiety, but last only a few hours. In the longer term, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac (fluoxetine ), Zoloft (sertraline) and Lexapro (escitalopram) can offer relief. I’m not advocating that you rush to medication—that can start you down the road of physical or psychological dependence and possible addiction. What I do suggest is, with your physician’s agreement, perhaps using medicine that may calm your mind enough to begin to learn new and effective psychological coping mechanisms that you eventually are able to turn to without medication.