When You Know It’s More Than Just Simple Anxiety

Dawn Bevier

Anxiety is often an over-used term for a much larger problem, and I can help you fix it

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When I go to my therapist and she asks what’s going on in my head, I feel like saying, “How much time do you have?”

Because the simpler answer is “What’s not going on in my head?”

I usually give her the one-word answer of anxiety, a word I feel is far too simple for what’s eating away at me. Then I feed her the usual details. I can’t sleep. I worry constantly. I always feel the compulsion to be moving, moving, moving to get away from my emotions, as if I could somehow outrun them.

But I can’t, no matter how hard I try.

And what I don’t tell her is that deep inside I know anxiety isn’t the only problem. It’s so much more than that. Yes, there’s depression, but there’s also guilt, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, and a profound sensitivity to the people and events that surround me.

And this toxic cocktail of mental ailments is a prison — one that is crippling me from the inside out.

I’ve been doing a lot of research on these symptoms, looking for a more encompassing term for what this “thing” is that perpetually sucks both the joy and tranquility out of my life. And when I stumbled upon one particular research article, I found that term.

Neuroticism.

And while the media and even psychological experts tend to lump all the traits I mentioned above into the easily definable diagnosis of anxiety, neuroticism has a much more complex set of symptoms.

So if you know without a doubt that there’s much more than anxiety at the root of your mental health issues, perhaps you will find this trait a more fitting term for what’s troubling you as well.

What is neuroticism?

Neuroticism is one of the components known in psychology as the “Big Five” indicators of personality. The other four indicators are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, and Agreeableness. Very Well Mind explains that each of these indicators represents a “continuum..between the polar ends of each dimension.” For example, on the quality of Openness, an individual could run the gamut between extreme openness, moderate openness, and little to no openness.

When it comes to the trait of Neuroticism, the same spectrum applies.

To find out where you lie on the scale of Neuroticism, ask yourself to what degree you fall under its defining traits. Here are some frequent qualities that define this “Big Five” factor:

  • Pessimism
  • Moodiness
  • Jealousy
  • Fear
  • Nervousness
  • Anxiety
  • Timidness
  • Self-criticism
  • Lack of confidence
  • Insecurity
  • Instability
  • Oversensitivity

In two separate articles, Medical News Today offers other characteristics of Neuroticism such as “feelings of guilt,” “[sensitivity] to environmental stress,” and “[repetitive] intrusive thoughts, behaviors, or mental acts.”

Looking at this list, it’s easy to see that many singularly diagnosed conditions, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and low self-esteem, all fall under the umbrella of Neuroticism.

And for people like me who score high on this personality trait, it can manifest itself as an all-consuming condition that strips away any semblance of peace and happiness.

Does this sound like you?

I am a teacher and most of my summer has been an endless emotional tug of war. The anxiety over the threat of being infected with this virus has kept me in my house most of the time.

The first time I had to go out, I had one of the worst panic attacks of my life. Combined with my own worry was the fact that I could literally feel the fear in the air of everyone around me. Other than a quick trip into the grocery store to pick up essential items, my only other excursions out of my house are made because my children are desperate to escape the four walls of my home-a home I feel guilty for confining them to due to my own anxiety.

And most recently, my stress has been related to my imminent return to school as a teacher under the threat of COVID. I was happy when my school decided to do remote learning for at least six weeks, as it alleviated my anxiety and fear of being exposed to this virus even more than I had already been forced to. However, when this aspect of Neuroticism dissipated, another symptom appeared.

I felt guilt over the pain and stress that millions of parents would suffer as a result of a decision that gave me happiness and relief. How would they find a safe place for their six-year-old to stay while school was closed? Would they even have enough money for daycare? What if they had to quit their jobs?

This inner turmoil tore me apart.

My own sense of happiness turned into self-loathing. I concluded that I was self-centered and selfish because I was more concerned about my own safety than the pain inflicted on others. I felt remorse for all the pleas and letters I had written to school administrators begging to be allowed to stay home from school a while longer until the threat of this virus lessened.

In this situation, anxiety wasn’t my main problem. It was guilt and an acute sensitivity to the feelings of others around me.

And for most people who suffer from Neuroticism, this poisonous concoction of emotions manages to make each decision or action in life a lose-lose situation whose result is a perpetual cycle of misery.

How to manage neuroticism

In an article by Psychology Today entitled “Research Suggests a Cure for Neuroticism,” it outlines the findings of researchers, Mark Moriarty Drake and colleagues, at Australia's Charles Darwin University. These researchers discovered that practicing mindfulness significantly helped those who scored high on levels of Neuroticism, finding that “people high in neuroticism who were also high in the trait of mindfulness exhibited lower psychological distress” and that “those participants with low levels of mindfulness who were high in neuroticism showed the greatest distress of all.”

So what is mindfulness, and how can it be developed?

Mayo Clinic gives advice on how to develop the traits of mindfulness. Here are some of their suggestions:

  • Practice being in the moment.

Pay attention to your thoughts as they arise. Trying looking at them from a more critical standpoint. Ask yourself questions such as “What exactly am I feeling?” and “What sensations are these feelings causing?” Experts also recommend that when you objectively study your inner thoughts, you should be careful to not pass judgment on yourself.

  • Practice breathing techniques to recenter yourself back into the present moment when your thoughts begin to stray.

An article entitled “How to Practice Mindfulness” states that focusing on your breath can be “an anchor to the present moment.” The article adds that if one incorporates focused breathing techniques frequently during instances of negative thinking, the techniques serve as “bicep curls for the brain.”

This means that with practice, each time toxic emotions start to take over, your body automatically begins to readjust your breathing to counteract symptoms of neuroticism.

  • Practice self-compassion and acceptance.

Mayo Clinic suggests that you “treat yourself the way you would a good friend.” Realize that you are human and doing the best you can to deal with the difficulties of the emotions you are facing. Also be aware that some of these feelings are actually an indicator of many positive qualities such as compassion, empathy, and a desire to protect others.

The bottom line:

Legendary artist Vincent van Gogh said, “Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony, and music inside me.” And this is true of all humanity, no matter how difficult life may seem. And when someone who feels deeply can see the beautiful notes that lie behind life’s discord, they may discover the depth of their emotions actually makes the symphony of existence more wonderful to them than a thousand other ears.

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Sanford, NC
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