Why Is Neuroticism So Toxic?

“The study’s results strongly suggest that neuroticism is more sensitive to threat than emotional reactivity … Neuroticism was an especially strong predictor of the particularly pernicious state of developing both anxiety and depressive disorders[18]. It’s been my professional dream to be able to prevent the development of anxiety disorders and depression in people who would have otherwise experienced them.

We can identify those kids that we should be targeting—that’s the first implication. 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.”

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

The goal of Zinbarg’s team is to design interventions that would not only prevent depression or anxiety disorders but could reduce risks for both maladies by identifying the common risk factor of neuroticism. In the future, high school students could be given a questionnaire on neuroticism—either via paper and pencil or administered online—that determines their standing on that personality trait as a red flag for targeted interventions.

Insights on Overcoming Neuroticism from the World of Sports

Tennis legend Arthur Ashe famously said, “There is a syndrome in sports called ‘paralysis by analysis.'” As an athlete, I learned early in my career[19] that excessive neuroticism was an insidious form of self-sabotage[20] that could derail my performance and prevent me from becoming a champion. I’ve spent a lot of time deconstructing the components of neuroticism. After decades of physical and psychological practice, I’ve mastered a variety of ways to snuff out my neurotic tendencies.

My father was a nationally ranked tennis player, and neurosurgeon[21], who taught me a lot about overcoming neuroticism. In the 1970s, my dad really wanted me to become the next Björn Borg. Although my father put a lot of pressure on me to succeed as a young tennis player, he also pounded it into my head that being neurotic was public enemy #1. As a coach, my dad was constantly giving me tips on how to have grace under pressure.

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