Neuroticism is a term describing the “tendency to experience frequent and intense negative emotions in response to various sources of stress.” (Barlow, et al.) Neuroticism is a way of describing the health of your emotional immune system.
Your body’s immune system has the task of keeping us healthy by identifying and overcoming infection or disease that we encounter from germs in the world around us. (Click here for a review of how your immune system works). Germs are everywhere. Every day, you encounter germs in the environment that challenge your immune system. Most of the time your immune system is stronger than the germs. When your immune system is working properly, you’re healthy and feeling well.
Unfortunately, there are times that the germs outsmart or overwhelm your immune system. You start to cough, get a runny nose, and run a fever in response to the virus. That lousy feeling is called “catching a cold.”
During the course of the cold, your body fights back, and usually wins. You recover. But something very important has also happened. Your immune system has learned to recognize the virus and has developed specific antibodies to fight back. The next time you encounter that specific virus, the antibodies are able to respond quickly. You may get sick, but the next round of sickness may not be as intense as before.
Just as the physical immune system fights physical germs, your emotional immune system is on guard against emotional pathogens. Every day you encounter stress from the environment around you. Work. Politics. World events. Home events. Finances. Health. Every day you encounter stress from the world inside you – your thoughts and beliefs about your ability to cope. Everyone experiences stress.
Neuroticism is a way of describing the health of your emotional immune system in response to these stresses.
Stress is a challenge to our emotional immune system. Stress calls on us to cope.
Many people have healthy emotional immune systems. A healthy emotional immune system is comprised of such things as healthy self-esteem, positive and supportive relationships, the ability to learn from previous stressful situations, and make strategic plans to cope more effectively in the future. A healthy emotional immune system enables a person to recover from stress more quickly and effectively. A healthy emotional immune system enables a person to take steps to prevent or proactively cope with stress (more on the topic of Proactive Coping and Resilience in a future series of blogs).
While healthy emotional immune system will not make you stress-proof, becoming stress-resilient can provides you with a wider and more healthy range of coping options to choose from. Stress-resilience and self-control go hand in hand.
When the stress-germs overwhelm our emotional immune system
When stress overwhelms our coping response, we can respond with such things as anxiety, anger, depression, shame and embarrassment, giving in to cravings and urges (e.g., use of alcohol or drugs), and becoming dependent, hopeless, or panicked when facing emergency situations (descriptions excerpted from NEO Inventories Professional Manual, by McCrae and Costa).
When stress is chronic or too severe, it can result in an exaggerated stress response. When this happens, it can take less stress to overwhelm your ability to cope effectively.
The good news is that there are things you can do today to lower your Neuroticism and boost your emotional immune system.
In a July 2017 article appearing on PsychologyToday.com, author Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. reported encouraging results on the treatment of Neuroticism from an Australian study. Researchers found that the practice of mindfulness (accepting one’s thoughts and feelings without judgment or criticism; becoming curious about the source of one’s thinking – what event in one’s past might have influenced the thought/feeling; and redefining the situation as manageable rather than threatening) can be effective in recovering emotional equilibrium from the event.
Similar to this recommendation is the practice of self-compassion. Treat yourself like you would treat your best friend who was facing a similar challenge. How would you talk to him if he came to you? Note: self-compassion is not to be confused with narcissism (self-worship). The former is therapeutic, the latter is toxic.
A third strategy for lowering Neuroticism and boosting your emotional immune system is to ask a trusted friend or advisor how they have handled similar situations. Men particularly can benefit from learning from the example of others.
Daily, one moment at a time, positive decisions can help you boost your emotional immune system and lower your Neuroticism.
As always, I’m eager to hear your thoughts. Call me or send me an email. Let’s continue the dialog and continue to grow in using our unfair advantage for the benefit of those around us.
Until next time, press on, men. Press on.