The Meaning Of "Neurotic" And Why It May Be Considered Outdated

Updated November 21, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever heard someone refer to another person as "neurotic?" This term is related to the word "neurosis," which was coined in the 18th century by William Cullen, a physician from Scotland who 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The term neurotic is a word that is often outdated in psychology.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.

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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While you may hear the terms neurosis or neurotic in social settings or the media, they may be considered outdated.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 of the disorders that used to be called neuroses are now classified as anxiety disorders." 

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 information about psychology continues to emerge, the language psychologists use may also change. For example, specific conditions that aren't currently in the DSM-5, which professionals use to classify and diagnose mental health conditions, are still being discovered and explored. In future versions of the DSM, we may see new terms and diagnoses that aren't in the most recent version, and old terms or diagnoses may be removed. 

Psychologists now have more specific language that allows them to talk about things that may impact a person's mental health, such as mental health conditions and symptoms of various disorders. They also have more information about how stress and anxiety affect the body and mind.

Outside of these changes, many words have negative connotations due to how they are used in popular media or by society. In the case of the word "neurotic," it may be misused to label individuals and may carry the connotations of "crazy" or "out of touch." Due to the stereotypes surrounding this word, individuals may not feel comfortable identifying with it. 

"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 mental health conditions, with about 18.1% of adults in the United States living with one. They can also impact kids and teens. According to 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 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 whether you're neurotic, know that you do not have to label yourself as such if you do not identify with the word. Something that impacts your emotional, psychological, or social well-being does not automatically need to label you. 

Any symptoms you're experiencing that may lead you to worry or feel as though you are "neurotic" may be addressed through the support of a others. If you live with a mental health condition, think that you might be, or need a space to talk, therapy could help.  

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, stress may come with symptoms like worry, headaches, negative or racing thoughts, a racing heart, changing moods, irritability, and trouble sleeping. 

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. 

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Seeking Help

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.


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. 

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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