Can You Make Yourself Less Neurotic?
Neuroticism used to be a fairly broad term used to describe certain kinds of psychological disturbances. These days, it’s mostly limited to one of the big five personality traits, which include openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, which you can easily remember with the acronym OCEAN. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions and more intense emotional reactions to threatening or frustrating situations.
While research suggests scoring high-ish on the other personality traits tends to result in better outcomes, including better relationships, more positive emotions, and even higher income, higher neuroticism tends to result in greater risk of mental and physical health issues and addiction. This is especially true when high neuroticism is paired with low conscientiousness. Given that high neuroticism increases your risk of addiction and makes you less happy overall, you might wonder if there is anything you can do about it if you happen to have high neuroticism.
As a basic personality trait, neuroticism is hard to change but it can be changed a bit. You are not likely to go from being in the ninetieth percentile to the tenth percentile of neuroticism--a huge change--but with persistent effort, you can probably dial it down a bit. It also helps that neuroticism tends to decline slightly as you age. The following are some ways you can reduce your neuroticism and thereby promote your recovery from addiction.
Go to Therapy
The most direct way to reduce neuroticism is to enter therapy. Your therapist can help you address it in a comprehensive way, including thought patterns, relationships, lifestyle factors, and perhaps medication. There is typically a biological component to neuroticism, meaning that some people are just physiologically more sensitive to stress, so it’s important not to think of neuroticism as a weakness or personal failing. Often, it also has a lot to do with early childhood environment and learned behaviors, and addressing those issues typically requires professional help.
Change How You Talk to Yourself
Although our ideas about neuroticism have changed a lot since Freud’s day, at least one thing is still similar: Negative feelings are, to a large extent, caused by our beliefs and assumptions, many of which we may not even be aware of. Although people who score high on neuroticism are often aware of their self-defeating behaviors, they feel powerless to actually change them. This is why a therapist can be especially helpful. One way of combating neurotic tendencies is to identify your underlying assumptions, challenge them, and replace them with more accurate and helpful thoughts.
For example, if you’ve had an argument with your spouse, you might think something like, “I’m always ruining my relationships,” a thought which characterizes yourself as comprehensively and permanently inept at relating to other people. This is an example of overgeneralization.
Instead, focus on the matter at hand. Did you listen to your spouse? Can you see things from their perspective? Were you making unreasonable demands? How might you best resolve the issue in a way that will make you both happy? More broadly, you probably have other relationships that go pretty well or you might even get along with your spouse pretty well most of the time. All of these ways of thinking can help you dismantle the cognitive distortions that worsen your challenging emotions.
As noted above, neuroticism is the tendency to feel more negative emotions and to feel them more intensely. Exercise combats both of these tendencies. First, exercise promotes the release of several neurotransmitters that improve your mood, including serotonin and endorphins. It also increases levels of BDNF, a neurotransmitter that grows neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region involved with memory formation that also helps regulate emotions.
Second, exercise causes structural changes in the brain that actually make your brain less sensitive to stress. A structure called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is plugged into several areas of the brain that are responsible for identifying and responding to threats. Regular exercise appears to help turn down the volume a bit on the HPA axis. Most studies suggest that at least 20 minutes a day of moderate-intensity aerobic exercises, such as brisk walking, jogging, biking, or swimming, is all you need to get the benefits.
Eat a Healthy Diet
More and more experts are becoming aware of just how important diet is for mental health. There are now quite a few studies showing that diet plays an especially large role in depression. One large meta-analysis of the research found that participants who adopted healthier diets--typically consisting of more nutrient-rich whole foods--had significantly fewer symptoms of depression.
This study found no effect of diet on anxiety symptoms--which are at least as common as depressive symptoms among people with high neuroticism. However, other research suggests that magnesium--specifically magnesium deficiency--may play an important role in anxiety disorders, making people more sensitive to stress. You can boost your magnesium levels by eating more magnesium-rich foods, many of which you should be eating anyway. These include nuts, beans, legumes, dark leafy greens, pumpkin seeds, avocados, and dark chocolate. If you decide to take magnesium supplements, consult with your doctor first since excess magnesium can cause problems.
Finally, you can reduce neuroticism by practicing mindfulness. One study of graduate students found that participating in a seven-week mindfulness course reduced neuroticism over a six-year follow-up period. Participants who completed the mindfulness course reported decreased psychological stress, due at least in part to personality changes.
There are several ways mindfulness can help reduce neuroticism. Perhaps the most important is that it’s a way of practicing acceptance of challenging emotions. Instead of trying to avoid or suppress them, you learn to sit with them and see they’re only feelings or thoughts and they can’t hurt you. Mindfulness also helps support other healthy lifestyle changes such as reducing emotional eating and improves your relationships by helping you be more attentive to the people around you. There are mindfulness classes available for free in many areas and online and you can practice in just a few minutes a day.
Personality traits change slowly and you should be looking for progress over months or years, not days or weeks. For that reason, it helps to make some of these changes habitual and to enlist the support of positive people. However, with persistent effort, you can reduce the intensity and frequency of negative emotions and make recovery from addiction a little easier.
At The Foundry, we know that recovery from addiction is really about reorienting your life. It’s not just about abstaining from drugs and alcohol, but about feeling more connected, purposeful, and comfortable in your own skin. That’s why we employ a variety of methods, including cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy to help you relate better to challenging emotions. To learn more, call us today at (844) 955-1066.
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