What Is Neuroticism?

The article is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.

The term “neurotic” is thrown around a lot, but is it necessarily being used accurately? In most cases, the answer is probably not.

But what exactly does “neurotic” and “neuroticism” mean? These terms come from the Greek word for “nerve” and date to the eighteenth century when doctors started to believe that mental health problems came from issues in the nervous system.

This understanding has since been updated, so does it even make sense to still refer to neuroticism and neurosis? Read on to learn more about neuroticism, including what it means in today’s scientific language.

The History of Neuroticism

The first person to use the term “neurosis” to refer to mental health troubles was the Scottish doctor, William Cullen, who wrote about it in 1769.

Cullen’s beliefs today do not hold up to modern science, however. For example, he was convinced that neurosis manifested as various symptoms like knee-jerking (literally) and not having a gag reflex.

In the twentieth century, famed psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung brought their own analysis to the neurosis.

These days, however, neurosis is not thought of in the same way. Keep reading to find out more!

Neuroticism Today

While the American Psychological Association once considered neurosis a legitimate condition, it is no longer supposed to be a diagnosis. In fact, it was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders during its third publication (DMS-III). Nowadays, we can think of “neurotic” in many cases as an imprecise way of referring to another mental health condition, such as anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

So, when people say “neurotic” nowadays they tend to use it in a non-scientific way. After someone is obsessing about something that seems to be perfect to everyone else but them, another person might comment “So-and-so is so neurotic!”

As with many terms—like “crazy,” “depressed,” “anxious,” etc.—it’s best to try to avoid using them as they generally don’t help the public understanding of mental illness.

And, in fact, neuroticism may have some benefits. People who could be considered to be “neurotic” under the older classifications also tend to be more sensitive and empathetic. So, while they may also be more likely to experience depression and anxiety, they also tend to be caring partners and compassionate people in general.

Now, let’s take a look at certain behaviors that can be considered neurotic. And if you feel like you could use more guidance on neuroticism, you might want to consider the helpful online resources available through BetterHelp.

Neurotic Behaviors

While there are many behaviors that could be labeled as “neurotic,” remember that this is unscientific language and generally refers instead to a sort of generalized anxiety.


People who are constantly irritable may be said to be “neurotic.” If they can’t seem to cope with minor inconveniences, such as traffic, a spilled beverage, etc., it could be a sign of anger issues in general.


Someone who constantly believes they are sick, even when they are not, is known as a hypochondriac. These people may be considered “neurotic” as it would appear to be a nervous condition that they have that prevents them from feeling like they can be healthy.


Excessive overthinking is a behavior typically associated with neuroticism. This is especially the case if the overthinking borders on obsession and causes the person a great deal of mental anguish.


Perfectionism is another form of obsessive thinking and behavior that might have been classified as “neurotic” under the old classifications. If perfectionism becomes “the enemy of the good,” as is often said, then it can be considered a negative trait.

Relationship Issues

Relationship issues in general—whether at home or at work—may be caused by generally neurotic behavior, including the others listed here. People who might have been diagnosed as “neurotic” in the past may be more likely to struggle with interpersonal relationships.

Road Rage

Letting yourself get worked up by small things may be a sign of neuroticism. People who cannot tolerate bad driving or being insulted while driving may have anger issues.

Inability to Cope with Bad News

If bad news completely shuts a person down, especially when it isn’t that serious, they may not be so “well-adjusted” and thus neurotic under the old classifications. Unfortunately, bad news is part of life and we have to learn to deal with it the best we can.

Feeling Excessively Guilty

Guilt can be a positive emotion in that it can keep us on the right path and help us learn from our mistakes. But guilt can also lead us in a downward spiral. And if a person feels much more guilty than they should, it may be a sign of neuroticism.

Being Dependent 

An independent person is someone who can generally take good care of themselves and doesn’t rely excessively on others. On the other hand, someone who is dependent may have a bad habit of being “clingy” and “helpless,” which may have seen them labeled as neurotic back in the day.

Being Dramatic

We all know those people in our lives who are super dramatic, right? It’s like a child whose stubbed toe becomes the tragedy of the century. Well, in adulthood, it’s a sign of maturity and being well-adjusted to cope with the ups and downs of life. If someone is constantly dramatic and always looking to gossip and talk down on people, it’s likely a sign of attention-seeking, insecurity, and what would formerly have been label as neuroticism.


It has been about two generations now that psychologists and researchers have avoided the term “neurotic,” following the adjustments made by the American Psychological Association in the 1980s.

Now, what is considered to be “neurotic” may generally refer to something like generalized anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Overall, we should limit our use of the term “neurotic” in a casual sense, as it may do more harm than good. Nonetheless, it can be helpful to understand the origins of this word and the types of behaviors that are associated with it.

In general, these are behaviors that we should aspire to limit as they reflect poorly on us as people. If you recognize yourself in these kinds of behaviors, it’s important to be proactive about addressing them so you can improve the quality of your life. Seeing a licensed counselor or your primary doctor is always a good place to start.