The Link Between Highly Sensitive People and ‘Neuroticism,’ According to Science

A highly sensitive person who struggles with neuroticism looking worried

Is so-called “neuroticism” an HSP’s biggest weakness — or is it actually your greatest strength?

What does the word “neurotic” mean to you? If you’re like me, harmful caricatures of an overly emotional, unstable person fill your mind. It’s certainly not something to add to the ol’ resume. 

While highly sensitive people are not inherently neurotic, they still suffer this stigma. Some might hear the term “highly sensitive” as synonymous with “neurotic,” and that’s not without reason. Cultural associations wrongly link sensitivity with emotional instability and fragility. 

On top of that, a 2019 study headed by sensitivity researcher Franisco Lionetti correlates high sensitivity with the personality trait called neuroticism — which is not exactly the same thing thing as “neurotic” in a general sense. While this link might be unsettling for some sensitive people, this kind of neuroticism does come with some advantages. A sensitive person’s tendency toward neuroticism — if it exists — may even be a feature of the evolutionary advantage of a having a highly responsive, deep-processing nervous system. 

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What is Neuroticism?

As a personality trait, neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions with greater frequency and fluctuation, particularly in response to stress. Everyone has some level of neuroticism, and it’s part of what helps us avoid taking rash or dangerous actions — you can think of it like the little voice in your head that points out risks. As such, neuroticism is seen as a defining characteristic of human personality in the widely embraced ”Big 5” personality traits model. The Big 5 traits are represented by the acronym OCEAN and are as follows:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extroversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

These traits are evaluated along a continuum to define each person’s personality. For example, the trait of “extroversion” refers to the range of introversion to extroversion, in which every person falls somewhere along the spectrum. 

For neuroticism, someone on the higher end of the scale experiences more frequent feelings of depressed mood, self-consciousness, worry, and frustration than those on the lower end of the scale.

While no one enjoys negative emotions, they are a very normal aspect of human life and nothing to be ashamed about. This is the sentiment of Susan Cain’s best-selling book Bittersweet. Cain writes, “[Bittersweetness is] an authentic and elevating response to the problem of being alive in a deeply flawed yet stubbornly beautiful world.” Or, as Sensitive Refuge co-founder Andre Sólo wrote in the Sensitive Refuge newsletter, sensitive folks are “alert, responsive, and reactive,” so their tendency toward neuroticism is simply a byfactor of paying close attention to life’s realities. 

How Are Neuroticism and Sensitivity Connected?

While neuroticism is not a marker of sensitivity, it is a common experience among highly sensitive people (HSPs). For example, in Lionetti’s study, her team pulled together data from 27 papers representing more than 11,000 of people with Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS), which is one of several terms scientists use to refer to sensitivity. They wanted to evaluate how people with SPS related to the Big 5 personality traits. They found that HSPs consistently scored a little lower than average in Extroversion, a little higher than average in Openness, and moderately higher in Neuroticism.

If you’ve been around the HSP world for any length of time, you may take issue with that personality profile because not all sensitive people are introverts. But that only serves to illustrate that, while this profile is common among HSPs, there is still plenty of variation in sensitive people’s personalities.

Even so, the correlation between sensitivity and neuroticism is important because both can be indicators of higher rates of anxiety and depression. A big caveat here, though, is that although HSPs do tend to be more responsive to negative feelings, they have also been shown to be more responsive to positive emotions and positive stimuli — like a heartwarming video or a beautiful work of art. This “positive” sensitivity is so powerful that, in some studies, HSPs are actually the ones most likely to overcome depression

In other words: if you’re an HSP, you are more responsive to all of life, not hopelessly captive to the negative — no matter what a personality test says. 

How do you know if you’re “neurotic”? 

Just as not all highly sensitive people are introverted, not all are neurotic. While a person’s sensitivity has a “strong biological basis,” Lionetti writes in another article — and is therefore largely fixed over the course of your life — your personality is more influenced by your experiences in addition to your genes. As such, a sensitive person may or may not develop neuroticism, largely based on their life experiences. 

In her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, Dr. Elaine Aron wrote, “HSPs with a troubled childhood are more at risk of becoming depressed, anxious, and shy than those [less sensitive] with a similar childhood.” Here, HSPs’ responsiveness to our environments — what sensitivity researchers identify as differential susceptibility — is the biggest predictor of neuroticism in HSPs. In other words, HSP’s heightened responsiveness to a difficult childhood is what makes them more likely to develop neuroticism. The good news, again, is we are also more responsive to positive environments than less sensitive people, so much so that we can use our differential susceptibility to boost far ahead of others — regardless of what kind of childhood you have. 

Some signs you may score higher for neuroticism include:

  • You don’t just think things through thoroughly, which all HSPs do, you feel a high degree of worry and “overthink” things
  • You are shy or socially anxious
  • You tend to jump to the worst conclusion about unexpected events (for example, you see an email from your boss and assume you’re in trouble)
  • You frequently doubt yourself
  • You feel guilty or afraid about minor things 
  • You get stressed easily
  • You have a hard time rebounding from negative emotions or working through them, and a hard time seeing that they will pass (all HSPs have strong emotions, but not all feel “stuck” in negative emotions like this)
  • Your natural state is worrying about things
  • You feel overwhelmed by small problems
  • You get frustrated, irritable or angry easily
  • Your emotions are unpredictable and can change suddenly 

If you have a hard time telling which of your behaviors come from being sensitive and which may come from neuroticism, you’re not alone — in her study, even Lionetti acknowledges that the link to neuroticism isn’t definite and may simply reflect bias in the scales used to measure sensitivity. 

Whatever the answer, though, it turns out a little neuroticism may actually be a good thing.

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Is Neuroticism Ever an Advantage? 

Neuroticism is correlated with the Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS), which is often strong in HSPs. Aron coined an alternative name for the BIS, the “pause-to-check” system, pointing to HSPs’ propensity to be alert, take in their surroundings, and make careful determinations based on all the stimuli they take in. 

This is a big factor in the evolutionary advantage that your high sensitivity gives you. The BIS serves as a check and balance on another system in the brain called the Behavioral Activation System (BAS), which is the brain’s reward system and is primed for impulsivity. Left to its own devices, the rash BAS would get a species in a lot of trouble, and the careful BIS serves as the brakes. In other words, the same BIS system that correlates with neuroticism also helps a species survive through informed caution. In fact, in their Big 5 analysis, Lionetti and her team grouped neuroticism and the BIS together, citing additional research that showed a strong association between the two. 

All this is to say that highly sensitive people’s neuroticism doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a reasonable response to our sensitivity to our surroundings, particularly when those surroundings present difficulties, and it can be a very good thing — even if it’s not always comfortable.

3 Things Every HSP Needs to Know About Neuroticism 

We shouldn’t be so quick to be ashamed of neuroticism. After all, there are plenty of reasons to have negative feelings in life. When we see that having a greater tendency toward negative emotions is simply another way of being human, we can work with neuroticism the same way we work with any personality trait: We accept who we are and we improve where we can. Here are three important things to remember about an HSP’s neuroticism:

1. So-called “neuroticism” may be an important part of fully sensing the world. 

HSPs’ skew toward neuroticism is largely attributed to their heightened responsiveness to adverse circumstances. In other words, highly sensitive people are the canaries in the coal mine. It’s our job to notice when something isn’t right. Neuroticism is not a given for highly sensitive people but it may be a byproduct of our heightened experience in the world. It’s certainly not deserving of shame but rather is worthy of our care and support.

2. You can work with your neuroticism to create change in the world.

While neuroticism has its fair share of downsides, there are some considerable benefits to experiencing negative emotionality. Neuroticism can increase our awareness and motivation to improve our lives and the world. We can approach our negative emotions with a sense of curiosity. We can ask ourselves, “Why am I feeling this way and what can I do about it? What needs to change?” By staying open and curious, can use even our negative mood toward a productive end. 

3. Neuroticism is just a part of you that needs tending, like anything else. 

Of course, negative feelings don’t always need a productive solution. Sometimes they are just there and something for us to live through. Still, it’s worth tending to our neuroticism for our own personal growth, creative expression, and stronger relationships.

I’m working on conjuring up a gentler image when thinking about my own neurotic tendencies. Noticing life as much as we sensitive folks do is hard enough without piling on ourselves for noticing. The world is so beautiful that I’m often bothered by all the ways it’s not. What’s wrong with that? 

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