This morning, James wakes up determined to have a great day. He goes for a quick jog, eats a nutritious breakfast, and walks into work with a smile. Everybody notices his positive, infectious vibes, and are happy to see he’s doing well today. Only as the day goes on, James’s positivity gradually and markedly lessens. A sudden meeting with his boss makes him anxious; his stumble on the stairs at lunch makes him angry and self-conscious; and his blind date tonight has him in a bundle of nerves—he can’t decide whether or not to cancel it. Though James is disappointed that his day took a turn, he isn’t surprised: he accepted long ago that he is a neurotic individual.

Neuroticism is a Big Five personality trait, characterized by negative and anxious emotional states. Individuals with neuroticism, such as James in the above scenario, tend to experience more severe feelings of guilt, envy, and anger than others—and they are particularly sensitive to environmental stress. These individuals are also at an increased risk for multiple mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, thanks to their neuroticism; however, a combination of a couple other personality traits just might be their saving grace. A new study “Three-way interaction of neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness in the internalizing disorders: Evidence of disorder specificity in a psychiatric sample” finds that if neurotic individuals are also extroverted and conscientious, they may have some degree of protection from those illnesses.

“We know individually how these traits relate to symptoms, but now we are beginning to understand how the traits might impact one another,” explained Kristin Naragon-Gainey, lead author of the paper and assistant professor in UB’s Department of Psychology. “We have to consider the whole person in order to understand the likelihood of developing negative symptoms down the road,” she continued.

Extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness join neuroticism to make up the Big Five personality traits—those which we all possess to varying degrees. But this study specifically shows that higher levels of conscientiousness and extroversion can shield an individual who also has higher levels of neuroticism, from developing multiple mental illnesses associated with the latter personality trait. And as Naragon-Gainey has explained, it shows that we need to focus more on how our personality traits may work together, not just how they work independently of one another.

To reach these findings, the research team interviewed and administered questionnaires to 463 participants who received psychiatric treatment within the previous two years. The interviews and questionnaires were designed to analyze just three Big Five personality traits—neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness—those which are most strongly associated with mood and anxiety disorders. And the results, which again showed that the latter two traits could lessen the risk of developing mental illnesses that comes with neuroticism, just might help clinicians utilize “protective traits” in treatment.

Naragon-Gain explained the strengths of extraversion and conscientiousness and how they combat the negative effects of neuroticism: “If someone has high levels of extraversion they might be very good at gathering social support or increasing their positive affectivity through social means. Similarly, conscientiousness has a lot to do with striving toward goals and putting plans in action, which can combat the withdrawal and avoidance that can go along with neuroticism.”

So, while neuroticism has long been known as a risk factor for certain mental illnesses—like depression and anxiety—this study suggests that we don’t simply accept it, but explore other factors that just might counter this effect. Because we aren’t made up of one simple character trait: we’re a combination of many.

University at Buffalo (2017, November 29). Combinations of Certain Personality Traits May Guard Against Anxiety and Depression. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved November 29, 2017 from

Naragon-Gainey, & K., Simms, L. J. (2017, October). Three-way interaction of neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness in the internalizing disorders: Evidence of disorder specificity in a psychiatric sample. Journal of Research in Personality. Retrieved on November 30, 2017 from