Neuroticism has been found for the first time to predict the development of anxiety and depression in young people.
Neuroticism is characterised by negative thinking in a range of areas.
It includes high levels of moodiness and worrying.
Professor Richard Zinbarg, the study’s lead author, said:
“It’s been my professional dream to be able to prevent the development of anxiety disorders and depression in people who would have otherwise experienced them.
We have pretty good treatments once people have already started suffering from them.
We do a lot less on prevention.”
There are five factors in personality: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience and neuroticism.
Most scientists now agree that it is neuroticism that has the closest link to almost all forms of mental illness.
Professor Zinbarg said:
“Some, including me, believe that neuroticism is somewhat specific.
The theorists in this camp believe that neuroticism makes people more susceptible to the negative emotions — anxiety, depression, irritability, anger.”
For the study, 547 high school juniors were given a test of neuroticism.
Being able to identify those at risk, is an important step, said Professor Zinbarg:
“We can identify those kids that we should be targeting — that’s the first implication.”
The next stage is to work on interventions that can reduce the risk:
“It should be possible to reduce simultaneously, through a single intervention, the risk for anxiety as well as for depression and help people cope much better.”
The scientist found, though, that neuroticism was not strongly linked to disorders of excess like substance abuse or gambling:
“The study’s results strongly suggest that neuroticism is more sensitive to threat than emotional reactivity writ large.”
The study is to be published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science (Zinbarg et al., 2016).
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