The Meaning Of The Term “Neurotic” And Why It’s Outdated

By Mason Komay|Updated March 29, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Have you ever heard someone refer to another person as “neurotic”? Coined in the 18th century, neurotic is a word that we no longer use in psychology. However, you may have heard a friend or family member say it, or you might hear it now and again in a book or movie. As a result, although the term is outdated, you might wonder what it means.

What Is Neurosis?

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The word neurosis comes from two Greek words meaning “nerve” and “abnormal condition.” The first person to coin it was William Cullen, a Scottish doctor. In 1769, he used the term to talk about a “disorder of sense and motion” and believed it to be caused by a problem in the nervous system. The term was a bit of a blanket term that could describe symptoms and disorders that had no physiological explanation. He believed that neurosis had different symptoms such as knee-jerking, no gag reflex, and other symptoms, and his definition was used until Jung and Freud went on to refine it.

While you may hear the terms “neurosis” or “neurotic” here and there in social settings or the media, the terms are both considered outdated. The American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology defines neurosis as “any one of various mental disorders characterized by significant anxiety or other distressing emotional symptoms, such as persistent and irrational fears, obsessive thoughts, compulsive acts, dissociative states, and somatic and depressive reactions. The symptoms do not involve gross personality disorganization, total lack of insight, or loss of contact with reality (compare psychosis). In psychoanalysis, neuroses are generally viewed as exaggerated, unconscious methods of coping with internal conflicts and the anxiety they produce. Most of the disorders that used to be called neuroses are now classified as anxiety disorders.” This does not mean that if you have an anxiety disorder or another similar condition, you are neurotic or labeled as such. Neurosis was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the 1980s when the third edition (the DSM-III) was published. The word “neurosis” is no longer used in medical settings and has not been used for over forty years.

Why Is The Term Neurotic Considered Outdated?

Why is the term “neurotic” considered outdated? As information related to psychology continues to emerge, the language that we use is changing all of the time. Some conditions that aren’t currently in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which professionals use to classify or categorize and diagnose mental health conditions, are being discovered and explored. This means that, in future versions of the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, we will probably see some terms and diagnoses that aren’t in the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders now. All of that said, we now have better, more specific language that allows us to talk about things that may impact a person’s mental health, such as mental health conditions or disorders and symptoms of those disorders. We also have more information regarding how things like stress can affect the body and the mind.

 “Am I Neurotic?”

As you may have noticed in the first passage of this article, the APA dictionary definition of neurosis specified that many conditions formerly classified as neuroses are now known as anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental health conditions, with about 18.1% of adults in the United States living with one. They can also impact kids and teens. In fact, according to the CDC, 7.1% of minors between the ages of 3 and 17 live with a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders include but are not limited to:

  • Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) is characterized by excessive worry or anxiety surrounding one or multiple social situations.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder, which is a diagnosis characterized by excessive worry about various or varied topics.
  • Panic disorder is characterized by recurring panic attacks and, often, a fear of future panic attacks.
  • Agoraphobia is a diagnosis characterized by a clinically significant fear of places that may lead to panic, helplessness, feelings of embarrassment, or difficulty leaving.
  • Specific phobia is characterized by a clinically significant, extreme, or severe irrational fear that negatively impacts a person’s functioning or ability to engage in life.

That said, this isn’t everything that could be going on. First, many other mental health conditions can cause significant distress. For example, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other related disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and personality disorders. Suppose you feel that you might live with a mental health condition. In that case, it’s important to see a medical or mental health provider who is qualified to provide an evaluation and diagnosis, such as a general practitioner or a psychiatrist. Alternatively, someone might feel “neurotic” and could be going through something that’s not a mental health condition at all. Outside of mental health conditions, things like grief and stress can cause distress and several different symptoms. For example, stress can come with signs like worry, headaches, negative or racing thoughts, a racing heart, changing moods, irritability, and trouble sleeping. Especially when stress is severe or chronic, someone may feel as though they are breaking down, which may impact their functioning, mental health, and even physical health in various, potentially severe, ways. Mental health matters for all of us. Anyone can struggle with their mental health, and anything that you’re going through is valid.

So, no. Nothing that impacts your emotional, psychological, or social wellbeing makes you “neurotic!” All of that said, any symptoms you’re experiencing that may lead you to worry or feel as though you are “neurotic,” in addition to anything else that you might be going through, deserves to be addressed. If you live with a mental health condition, think that you might be, are going through a difficult time in life, or need a confidential space to talk, therapy can help.

Seeking Help

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Therapy can aid you in symptom reduction if you live with a mental health condition. It can help you work on other areas of life or factors impacting how you feel, like work stress and interpersonal relationships. You do not need a diagnosis to see a mental health counselor or therapist. If you’re interested in seeking help, you can look for a provider in your area, or you can sign up for an online therapy platform like BetterHelp and get matched with a therapist or counselor.

Finding the right fit matters, and online therapy options are one way to find quality support. Even better, various studies on online therapy back up the efficacy of online treatment. Research shows that online therapy can play a significant role in reducing depression and anxiety symptoms. For example, one study found that online therapy was even more effective than traditional in-person sessions, with 100 percent of participants in the online group showing continued symptom reduction three months after treatment.

BetterHelp offers users discreet online counseling with a licensed professional who cares. Whether you’re enduring concerns related to a mental health condition or something else that’s on your mind, our team is properly equipped to help you move forward or address a range of concerns, all at a fraction of the cost of traditional therapy and from the convenience of home. BetterHelp provides couples counseling in addition to individual counseling, and the providers on the platform have a range of different specialties and personalities. Every therapist on the BetterHelp platform has verified licensure and is an experienced professional. You deserve to get the care you need and accept support, so don’t hesitate to reach out no matter who you are.

Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar concerns.

“Yvette is a very direct and knowledgeable counselor. She has been able to cut through the nonsense to see where the root of many of my problems lies. Time and again, she helps me objectively see things and provides me with the honesty I need to come out of myself and look at things from a less emotional point of view. I know that I can trust her to bring sense to my irrational ways of thinking and help me to cut the world down to a size that I can easier handle.”

“Laura has been a lifesaver, literally. Without her, I would have drowned in my compulsive, obsessive, irrational thoughts. Thank you for saving me from me and making me feel worthy, safe, and valid. You are an angel, Laura!”


If there’s one thing we know, it’s that life isn’t predictable and that no one can do it all on their own all of the time. Although neurotic is no longer used in medical and mental health settings, anyone experiencing distress deserves care.

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