If you want to better understand why neurotic people like myself behave the way they do — or if you have neurosis and have a similar curiosity about your own tortuous mental processes — than this following excerpt from The Atlantic is spot on. It is based on a scientific paper published in the journal Cell: Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
The paper’s thesis is that neurotic people—tense, panicky types who are consumed by gloomy feelings—get that way because they have an overabundance of negative, so-called “self-generated” thoughts. Rather than overreacting to bad experiences, the minds of neurotic people create their own threats.
“It seems like these people have spontaneous brain activity that’s firing off, there’s a trickle-down effect, and it feeds into their more basic threat-processing systems” he said. “They’ll be sitting in an armchair and their heart rate is 200 and they’re panicking and sweating”.
These negative self-generated thoughts aren’t completely unrealistic, Perkins notes. Neurotic people don’t fear the earth will be invaded by aliens tomorrow. They think their wife will cheat on them on a business trip, even if she’s the most loyal and loving woman in the world.
Strangely, these melancholy thoughts also have an upside: They help in planning, delaying gratification, and, some studies show, with creativity. The more you keep your life’s big problems “constantly before you”, as Newton did, the likelier it is you’ll resolve them.
Still, “self-generated thoughts, when focused on the past, can be pretty depressing”, Perkins said. The constant gloom takes its toll. Neurotic people tend not to be very adept at high-pressure jobs, such as flying fighter planes or defusing bombs. Neuroticism strongly correlates with a risk of psychiatric illness, and it’s at least partly genetic, so people can pass it on to their kids.
I can relate with all of this, including the fact that this behavior seems to run in my family. As long as I can remember I have always been a nervous wreck, albeit to varying degrees depending on the circumstances; thankfully, it is not as if every waking moment of my life is one of constant worry and stress. Rather, such thoughts come and go without much sense; while obvious scenarios like taking a test or speaking before a crowd sometimes trigger neurosis, other times it emerges during the most passive and mundane activities (as the article observed).
Fortunately, over the last few years I have come to understand my neurotic mind better, and to implement steps to mitigate its subsequent effects, like anxiety and depression: mindfulness meditation, therapeutic activities, better sleeping habits, exercise, and a healthier diet. Most crucially, having a large and supportive social network of family, friends, acquaintances, and a graciously understanding girlfriend has given me far more confidence and comfort than even my neurosis could ever undermine.