The Meaning Of "Neurotic" And Why It May Be Considered Outdated

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever heard someone refer to another person as "neurotic?" This term is linked to the word "neurosis," coined in the 18th century by Scottish physician William Cullen. He used the word to describe nervous disorders without a clear cause. 

The term neurotic is a word that is often outdated in psychology. However, you may have heard a friend or family say it or hear it now and again in a book or movie. As a result, you might be wondering what it means. In modern psychology, neuroticism is one of the personality traits that tend to manifest as emotional instability, negative emotions, and easily aroused stress. It's essential to recognize neurotic tendencies and seek professional help if these behaviors lead to negative impacts on daily life or mental health issues.

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What is neurosis?

The word neurosis comes from two Greek words that translate to "nerve" and "abnormal condition." William Cullen used it in 1769 to discuss a "disorder of sense and motion." He believed a problem in the nervous system caused it. 

The word often served as an umbrella term to describe symptoms and disorders without physiological explanation. William believed neurosis had different symptoms, such as knee-jerking, a lack of gag reflex, and jittery movements. His definition of neurosis was used until Jung and Freud went on to refine it in the future. 

While you may hear the terms neurosis or neurotic in social settings or the media, they may be considered outdated.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." 

They go on to state, "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 disorders formerly called neuroses are now classified as anxiety disorders, often involving neurotic tendencies or neurotic personality traits.

The definition from the APA may 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 more than 40 years.

Why is the term neurotic considered outdated?

As psychological knowledge evolves, so does the language used by psychologists. For example, specific conditions not currently in the DSM-5, which professionals use to classify and diagnose mental health conditions, continue to be discovered and explored. In future DSM versions, we may see new terms and diagnoses that aren't in the most recent edition, while old terms or diagnoses may be removed.

Psychologists now have more precise language enabling them to discuss factors that impact a person's mental health, such as mental health conditions, psychological disorders, and symptoms of various disorders. They also possess a deeper understanding of how stress, anxiety, and emotions affect the body and mind.

Beyond these changes, numerous words carry negative connotations due to their portrayal in popular media or societal usage. In the case of "neurotic," it is often misused to label individuals, potentially evoking negative feelings and connotations of "crazy" or "out of touch." As a result, people may feel self conscious or experience self doubt when identifying with this term, contributing to its outdated status.

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"Am I neurotic?"

The APA dictionary definition of neurosis specifies that many conditions formerly classified as neuroses are now known as anxiety disorders. 

Anxiety disorders are some of the most prevalent neurotic disorders, with about 18.1% of adults in the United States living with one. They can also impact kids and teens. According to peer reviewed studies from the CDC, 7.1% of minors between the ages of three and 17 live with a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders include but are not limited to:

  • Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia): A condition characterized by excessive worry or anxiety surrounding one or multiple social situations.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): A diagnosis characterized by excessive worry about various or varied topics.
  • Panic Disorder: A condition that can involve recurring panic attacks and, often, a fear of future panic attacks.
  • Agoraphobia: A phobia characterized by a clinically significant fear of places or external events that may lead to panic, helplessness, feelings of embarrassment, or difficulty escaping. 
  • Specific Phobias: Phobias may be characterized by a clinically significant or severe irrational fear that negatively impacts a person's functioning or ability to engage in life. For example, someone with an intense phobia of spiders may have arachnophobia. 

Other mental health conditions may also cause significant distress, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or bipolar disorder.  

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

If you feel you might be experiencing a mental health condition, consider reaching out to a medical or mental health provider qualified to provide an evaluation and diagnosis, such as a general practitioner or a psychiatrist. 

If you're wondering how to tell if you're neurotic, remember that you don't need to label yourself if you don't identify with the term. Behaviors affecting your emotional, psychological, or social well-being don't automatically require labeling. Any symptoms you're experiencing, leading you to worry or feel "neurotic," may be addressed through emotional stability, professional support, or therapy. 

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When "neuroticism" is not a mental health issue 

In some cases, an individual might feel "neurotic" and could be going through something that's not a mental health condition at all. Outside of mental health conditions, experiences such as grief and stress may cause distress and intense symptoms.

For example, easily stressed individuals may experience symptoms like worry, headaches, negative thoughts, racing heart, changing moods, anger, irritability, and trouble sleeping. These neurotic traits or neurotic behaviors might arise from minor problems, leading to negative outcomes.

If stress is severe or chronic, someone may feel like they are breaking down, which could affect their functioning, mental health, and physical health in various ways.

Online therapy for support with mental health

Therapy may aid you in symptom reduction if you live with a mental health condition or distressing symptoms. It can help you work on various areas of life, such as 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 sign up for an online therapy platform like BetterHelp for individuals or Regain for couples. 

Finding the right fit can make a big difference, and online therapy options are one way to find quality support. 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 more effective than traditional in-person sessions. In the study, 100% of participants in the online group showed continued symptom reduction three months after treatment.

Takeaway

Life often isn't predictable, and it can feel challenging to work on your concerns alone. Although "neurotic" may no longer be used in medical and mental health settings, anyone experiencing anxiety or distress may find support through therapy. It's essential to recognize that neuroticism exists as a personality trait, and individuals with a neurotic personality can also benefit from professional help.

If you're ready to get started and speak to a professional, consider reaching out to a compassionate mental health counselor. 

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