Jan. 22, 2024 – In the 1979 comedy Manhattan, Mary (played by Diane Keaton) tells Isaac (Woody Allen) to vent his frustrations so they can finally get their feelings out in the open. “I don’t get angry,” Isaac replies. “I grow a tumor instead.”
Allen’s characters are often neurotic, prone to excessive worry, anxiety, and stress. Hollywood has a history of playing this for laughs, but in real life, neuroticism has long been linked to poor health, and today, more science supports that link.
“There’s a lot of evidence now that personality traits are related to a whole host of health outcomes,” said psychologist Daniel Mroczek, PhD, director of personality and health at Northwestern University. Neuroticism, in particular, appears problematic.
People high in neuroticism generally see the world as distressing and unsafe. They can be moody, tense, and prone to sadness.
“They tend to feel their emotions more strongly, be more reactive, and take longer to calm down,” said Shannon Sauer-Zavala, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky.
The effects may go beyond a sour mood. Research suggests that neuroticism raises the risk of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety as well as physical illnesses like heart disease and some cancers. Some research links neuroticism with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. A recent meta-analysis suggested that neuroticism raises dementia risk, and a systematic review published last month linked facets of neuroticism with early death.
Even an affliction as mundane as a headache may affect neurotic people more: Data from the U.S., Japan, and the Netherlands shows that higher neuroticism can increase the likelihood of headaches.
The Big Question
Does neuroticism cause poor health, or does poor health cause neuroticism? Suffering could certainly make people anxious, worried, and emotional. And because most of these studies are associative, they can’t prove cause and effect.
But studies that assess and track healthy people over many years suggest that the personality trait leads to ill health, at least in part, said Angelina Sutin, PhD, a professor of behavioral sciences and social medicine at Florida State University College of Medicine.